It turns out the hashtag was trending way before Twitter—a new discovery in a South African cave shows human’s earliest known drawing was a depiction of the now pervasive symbol, or at least very close to it.
The extremely rare ancient etching of a red, cross-hatched pattern is estimated to be between 70,000 and 100,00 years old and predates all other previously identified drawings by roughly 30,000 years, cementing the belief that early Homo sapiens shared similar behaviors to humans today.
The drawing was discovered by Christopher Henshilwood, a professor of archaeology at Norway’s University of Bergen, and his colleagues during their expedition in Blombos Cave—a site on the southern coast of South Africa known for its rich history as a reserve for early modern human cultural activity.
The “hashtag”—actually a six-by-three cross-hatched pattern believed to have been drawn in red ochre—was found on a flake of silcrete—a hardened layer of soil and sediment good for making tools (and art). The find provides further evidence that modern human behavior isn’t as modern as was once believed.
“The drawing adds another dimension to our previous findings from Blombos.” Henshilwood tells HISTORY.com, “These signs were most likely symbolic, which helps round out the argument that these Homo sapiens were behaviorally modern. They behaved essentially like us before 70 ka (Kiloanni, or one thousand years) [ago], and before they left Africa for Eurasia.”
The fact that the drawing survived at all is a bit of a miracle. While engravings similar to this one have been previously catalogued by archaeologists, hand-drawn graphics such as the one found in the Blombos Cave are typically too delicate to endure long enough to be discovered.
“There’s no reason for thinking that drawing a cross-hatched pattern required a level of cognitive sophistication more complex than that needed to engrave the same pattern on a piece of ochre,” Francesco d’Errico, one of Henshilwood’s co-authors and a Principal Investigator and Professor II at the University of Bergen’s SFF Center for Early Sapiens Behavior (SapienCE), says. “However, drawings have much lower probabilities of surviving in the archaeological record, as they are so fragile and elusive. It’s what makes [this drawing] a very special find.”
The Blombos discovery could help pave the way to further discoveries of prehistoric art. According to van Niekerk, the team has now “developed a methodology for identifying drawings that can be applied to other finds.”
Throughout its time as an established dig site, Blombos Cave has provided archaeologists with a treasure trove of artifacts from early Homo sapiens. Henshilwood’s team has found shells with an ochre-rich substance inside (possibly to be used as paint), beads, jewelry and abstract engravings—including some of similar age, and containing similar patterns to that of this new find.
According to Karen L. van Niekerk, another co-author of the study and also principal Investigator at SapienCE, the cave’s location and environment—as well as a little bit of luck—have all contributed to its archaeological bounty.
“[Blombos] is a small cave that has never been vandalized. It was also sealed by a sand dune from 70,000 to 2,000 years ago. This, combined with it being a limestone cave (which is good for preservation), has contributed greatly to the preservation of the artifacts.”
The cave itself is in a prime location, situated next to the coast, where shellfish was “an abundant food source,” suggesting that, as today, humans 100,000 years ago also coveted beachfront property and fine dining..
Although the drawing is, obviously, not a hashtag as we know it today, it does relate to modern social media in some ways. As we express ourselves today with selfies, pictures of our favorite meals and adorable pets for our followers, the early humans who made their way to Blombos Cave were expressing themselves by creating art.
“It is definitely an abstract design,” he says, “and it most certainly had some meaning to the maker and probably formed a part of the common symbolic system understood by other people in this group.”