Blombos Cave Rock Art
Prehistoric Engravings on Ochre Stone, Prehistoric Snail Beads.

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One of the engraved stones at Blombos
dating from about 70,000 BCE.
Oldest Art of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Blombos Cave Rock Art (70,000 BCE)
Prehistoric Engravings with Crosshatch Patterns

Home to some of the earliest known prehistoric art in all of Africa, the archeological site known as Blombos Cave is located in a limestone cliff, some 100 metres from the sea on the coast of South Africa, about 180 miles east of Cape Town. It is famous for its prehistoric rock engravings, dating back to the Mousterian period of the Middle Paleolithic era (70,000 BCE), which puts it among the oldest Stone Age art ever discovered. (See Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Works.) The find consisted of two pieces of ochre rock incised with geometric abstract signs, and a series of beads made from Nassarius kraussianus shells.

The Blombos engravings are not considered to be "cave art", since they are not part of the fabric of the cave, but they are the earliest art created by Modern man, and the oldest known example of sub-Saharan African art. Only the Bhimbetka Petroglyphs (290,000-700,000 BCE) from Madhya Pradesh in India, the Venus of Berekhat Ram (230-700,000 BCE) from the Golan, and the Venus of Tan-Tan (200-500,000 BCE) from Morocco, are older.

Blombos Cave Snail Beads (75,000 BCE)
See: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

For details of the earliest
prehistoric figurative carving
of Paleolithic art, see:
Venus of Hohle Fels.

For details of arts & culture
during the Pleistocene and
Holocene epochs, see:
Irish Stone Age Art
Mainly megalithic architecture.

Discovery and Dating

Archeological investigations first began at the Blombos complex in 1991. One of the earliest discoveries was a number of stone artifacts known as bifacial points, manufactured in a style which previously appeared in Europe only as late as 17,000 BCE. Other finds which indicated a relatively advanced Blombos culture, included ground and polished animal bone tools, dated to 80,000 BCE, making them some of the oldest bone tools in Africa. From tests on a wide range of fossils, tools and other artifacts, it was learned that Stone Age man inhabited the caves during three phases of the Middle Paleolithic: phase one occurred during the period 140,000-100,000 BCE; phase two occurred around 80,000 BCE; while phase three dated from around 73,000 BCE.

The Engraved Ochre Stones

Then in 2002, archeologists announced that two pieces or rock, composed of iron ore stone ochre and decorated with abstract crosshatch designs, had been recovered, dating to at least 70,000 BCE: that is, pre-dating the next oldest example of rock art (the El Castillo cave paintings) by 30,000 years. Two new luminescence-based dating techniques were employed to date the artifacts: thermo-luminescence and optically stimulated luminescence, which was used to date burnt pieces of stone discovered near the artifacts to 70,000-75,000 BCE.

Ochre is a naturally occurring red iron oxide, commonly used by prehistoric hunter-gatherers as a colouring pigment for body-painting. In the Blombos caves, archaeologists discovered hundreds of lumps of this material, including pieces which had been ground into crayons. Their honed points suggested they were employed for design purposes, although as yet no cave painting has been discovered. (For examples of this type of parietal art, see the caves of Chauvet (c.30,000 BCE), Pech-Merle (c.25,000 BCE), Cosquer, (C.25,000 BCE), Lascaux (c.17,000 BCE) and Altamira (c.15,000 BCE).

Other significant finds of ancient art from the Blombos cave included shell beads dating from the period (70,000-75,000 BCE).


The discovery of the abstract ochre stone engravings - predating similar megalithic art by 65,000 years - is suggestive of an advanced people capable of generating and understanding symbols and abstraction. In Europe no similar petroglyphs were found until the era of Aurignacian art around 33,000 BCE. The existence of such an African culture at Blombos is further supported by the sophistication implicit in the beads, bone tools and other materials found in the cave. Indeed, these smaller items may be the oldest examples of mobiliary art ever discovered. Whether the site of the cave complex, on the shore of the Indian Ocean, might indicate any form of contact with southern Asia - where cultural levels were rising fast during the Middle Paleolithic era - is not known, although the fact that prehistoric migrations from the SE Asian mainland to islands in the Pacific didn't really start until about 65,000 BCE tends to argue against this possibility. However, the recent dating of the Sulawesi Cave art (Indonesia) to 37,900 BCE, does support the idea that "modern man" acquired his artistic capability before leaving Africa, rather than during his journey, or after reaching his final destination.

Note: For a comparison with later African art, please see the animal paintings on the Apollo 11 Cave Stones (c.25,500 BCE).

Note: For more information about the artists of prehistory, please see the Ivory Carvings of the Swabian Jura, and the Venus Figurines, especially the Venus of Kostenky, the Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Brassempouy.


The only controversy concerning the discovery of this Late Pleistocene abstract art at Blombos cave, is whether the artifacts represent true art. Several archaeologists, at least to begin with, were reportedly hesitant to accept this proposition. One can dismiss this objection quite simply by pointing to the thousands of examples of cupule art, found throughout the world as far back as the Lower Paleolithic era. No archeologist has yet claimed to "understand" or "evaluate" the artistic nature or cultural significance of this ancient art, yet there seems no doubt that it represents a very early type of creative behaviour.

• For the origins of painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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