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Strange Days: Archaeology

 

Birth of Symbolic Thought

Could 60,000-year-old engraved patterns on ostrich eggs be oldest form of 'written' communication?

Archaeology - ostrich eggs

Scratch patterns on ostrich eggs, thought to be 60,000 years old.
Diepkloof Project / P-J Texier, CNRS

FT267

Engraved patterns on the side of ostrich eggs, thought to be 60,000 years old, could be the oldest form of ‘written’ communication. The etchings were used to mark the eggs, which had been turned into water-flasks by African hunter-gatherers. They date back to a time before the last major wave of humans left Africa to populate the rest of the world. The four different patterns and markings, including cross-hatchings and parallel lines, are repeated and are thought to convey ownership or purpose and to differentiate the eggs from each other. The researchers, led by Pierre-Jean Texier of the University of Bordeaux, examined 270 inch-long egg fragments, found in the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in Western Cape, South Africa. “Engraved abstract patterns are widely accepted as evidence for the presence of symbolic thought,” said the researchers. “This unique collection demonstrates not merely the engraving of a single geometrical pattern but the development of a graphic tradition and the complex use of symbols to mediate social interactions… These objects were used daily, were curated, and were elements of a collect­ive and complex social life.”

Arguably, the earliest examples of conceptual thought are the pieces of shell jewellery discovered at Skhul Cave in Israel and from Oued Djebbana in Algeria, reckoned to be 90,000 to 100,000 years old. Shell beads some 75,000 years old have been found at Blombos Cave in South Africa as well as a number of ochre blocks that have engraving not dissimilar to those at Diepkloof [FT170:18]. However, the significance of the latter may lie in their number, which proves such marking could not have been mere doodles. BBC News, D.Telegraph, 2 Mar 2010.

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