Drawing within the sand on the seashore? Our ancestors did the identical 140,000 years in the past

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The urge to attract photos in sand, or create sand sculptures, appears to be irresistible, as a stroll on many a contemporary seashore or dune floor will present. Sand is an enormous canvas – and should have been used as one for a lot longer than folks realise.

When folks consider historic palaeoart, cave work (pictographs), rock engravings (petroglyphs), photos on bushes (dendroglyphs) or preparations of rocks in patterns (geoglyphs) may come to thoughts. Till just lately it was solely doable to take a position that the oldest artwork might need been in sand.

We’re, respectively, a vertebrate ichnologist who research the fossil tracks and traces of vertebrates, and a bodily geographer, within the functioning and long-term evolution of coastal landscapes.

We’re a part of a staff that has spent the previous 15 years finding out vertebrate tracksites on South Africa’s Cape south coast that date again to the Pleistocene epoch, between 70,000 and 400,000 years in the past. In the course of the course of that analysis we’ve realised that not solely might we establish hominin and animal tracks; we had been in a position to recognise patterns that we suggest our human ancestors made within the sand: in different phrases, a brand new type of palaeoart.

The rocks we largely discover them in are often called aeolianites, the cemented variations of historic dunes that kind alongside the shoreline. Such historic “sand artwork” had by no means been described earlier than, so we coined a brand new time period for it: “ammoglyph” (“ammos” being Greek for “sand”).

In a latest article within the journal Ichnos we offered dates for seven hominin ichnosites (a time period that features tracks and different traces) from the Cape south coast. What we interpreted as ammoglyphs had been discovered at 4 of these websites. The oldest was dated to between 149,000 and 129,000 years in the past.


A key problem when finding out any palaeo-record – whether or not trackways, fossils, or other forms of historic sediment – is to find out how outdated the supplies are. Within the case of the Cape south coast aeolianites, we use a courting technique known as optically stimulated luminescence.

This exhibits how a lot time has handed for the reason that grains of sand had been final uncovered to daylight, providing an estimate of when the aeolianite sediments had been buried as the traditional dune surfaces had been forming. Given how the tracks and markings on this research should have been shaped – impressions made on moist sand, adopted by speedy burial with new blowing sand – it’s a good technique as we may be fairly assured that the courting “clock” began at about the identical time because the trackways and markings had been created.

In fact, we needed to be diligent in attempting to exclude different causes of the patterns in rock that we encountered, together with trendy graffiti. We had been in a position to obtain this with larger confidence in some instances than others. Clearly, although, if our ancestors’ tracks might be preserved on these dune and seashore surfaces, so might the patterns that they may have made with a stick or a finger.

Understanding the marks

Two of the 4 websites we dated for this paper solely contained what we imagine to be ammoglyphs – with no related monitor proof of who made them. The opposite two contained both knee or footprint impressions in affiliation with the ammoglyphs. At one of many latter websites human forefoot impressions had been present in affiliation with a variety of linear grooves and small spherical depressions. We weren’t in a position to decide whether or not these represented palaeoart, had been some type of “messaging”, or had a utilitarian perform similar to foraging.

Learn extra:
World’s oldest _Homo sapiens_ footprint recognized on South Africa’s Cape south coast

By way of age, two of the possible ammoglyph websites stand out. The oldest was dated to between 149,000 and 129,000 years in the past.

The findings at this web site comprised a sequence of lengthy, completely straight grooves in a triangular sample that included a bisector of 1 angle. We jokingly referred to the artist because the “Pleistocene Pythagoras”. This rock was present in a really distant, rugged space, and was destined to be destroyed by excessive tides and storm surges. We had been in a position to efficiently rescue it by helicopter and have it curated and displayed within the Blombos Museum of Archaeology in Nonetheless Bay.

The second web site was dated to round 136,000 years in the past, give or take about 8,000 years. It comprised virtually two thirds of a round groove, a central despair, and two doable knee impressions. The rock floor was damaged on the edges of the circle; in all probability the unique circle was full. One property of sand that’s absent on different potential palaeoart surfaces is the benefit with which a big circle may be inscribed on it, for instance by utilizing a forked stick.

Our interpretation for the round ammoglyph is that the central despair represents the spot the place one finish of a forked stick was anchored by a kneeling human, whereas the opposite portion was rotated, yielding a near-perfect circle.

A man holding a forked stick kneels in the sand on a beach, drawing a circle

Creator Charles Helm demonstrates how one of many ammoglyphs was in all probability made.
Linda Helm

As anybody who has tried is aware of, it’s extremely exhausting to attract an ideal circle and not using a compass. We don’t but know the way the superbly straight strains had been inscribed; we speculate that maybe straight reeds had been positioned within the sand, however there isn’t a approach to know for positive.

We additionally famous similarities between the shapes of a number of the purported ammoglyphs and the shapes of historic geometric engravings made in caves on this shoreline, similar to Blombos Cave.

Learn extra:
South Africa’s Blombos cave is house to the earliest drawing by a human

An historic impulse

Due to the dates obtained by our revealed research, we are able to conclude that after we encourage our youngsters and grandkids to play within the sand, and so they draw patterns and make sandcastles, they’re indulging in a profoundly atavistic exercise that extends far into antiquity, so far as not less than round 140,000 years.

The creation of artwork is without doubt one of the traits that helps to make us human. Figuring out that our ancestors so way back did the identical as we do at the moment maybe helps so as to add to that sense of “humanness”.


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