The world?s oldest example of abstract art, dating back more than 70,000 years, has been found in a cave in South Africa. It was found on two pieces of ochre in a cave on the shore of the Indian Ocean.

Previously, the earliest evidence of abstract art came mainly in France and dated back less than 35,000 years.

Dr. Christopher Henshilwood, from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, says, ?[The art] may have been constructed with symbolic intent, the meaning of which is now unknown. The engraving itself is quite a complex geometric pattern. There is a system to the patterns. We don’t know what they mean, but they are symbols that I think could have been interpreted by those people as having meaning that would have been understood by others.?

More than 8,000 other pieces of ochre were found in the cave, many of which had been rubbed smooth as if to make pigment powder. Ochre is a form of iron ore that is frequently found in Stone Age deposits less than 100,000 years old. It may have been used as a decorative body paint.

The researchers believe that the ochre was first scraped and ground to create flat surfaces. It was then marked with cross hatches and lines to create a complex design.

The find means that what?s known as modern behavior, including abstract thinking, began 35,000 earlier than previously thought. ?The theory up until now has been that modern human behavior started only around 40,000 years ago,? says Henshilwood. ?The whole of South Africa was occupied by a biologically modern people who had evolved about 150,000 years ago. There is no doubt that the people in southern Africa were behaviorally modern 70,000 years ago.?

While the markings are suggestive, not all scientists are prepared to classify them as a form of artistic expression and abstract thought. Steve Kuhn of the University of Arizona says the finding is the result of some ?very good work by some very serious researchers,? but adds, ?I?d be more comfortable if there were more of these engraved stones; if these alleged symbols were found many times in different places. It is possible they were just doodlings that really didn?t mean anything.?

To see photos of some of the art,click here.

To learn more, read ?Beyond Stonehenge? by Gerald S. Hawkins, click here.

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