April 13, 2024

Stingray sand ‘sculpture’ off the coast of South Africa may be the oldest example of humans creating the image of another creature

The southern Cape coast of South Africa offers many clues about how our human ancestors lived some 35,000 to 400,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch. These tracks are captured in the dunes they once traveled, today cemented and preserved in a type of rock known as eolianite.

Our research team has been studying this area since 2008. We have described fossilized tracks of large Pleistocene animals such as lions, rhinos, elephants, giant buffaloes and crocodiles, as well as footprints left by hominids.

Then, in 2018, one of our “citizen scientist” supporters, Emily Brink, spotted an intriguing rock east of Still Bay, about 330km east of Cape Town. The rock was unusually symmetrical and oddly shaped like a stingray, minus the tail.

After careful study of the rock, we published an academic article in the journal Rock Art Research in which we postulated that it represents a sand sculpture of a blue stingray (Dasyatis chrysonata). We believe that the sculpture may have started with the tracing of a specimen in the sand.

Why do we use words like “position” and “believe” instead of being more confident and assertive? Firstly, we cannot prove our interpretation and others cannot falsify it. It therefore represents speculation – albeit highly informed speculation, based on our understanding of many tens of thousands of such rocks. Second, ancient paleoart is rare in the archaeological record and can be harder to recognize than more recent art: we don’t really know how much we don’t know.

However, if our interpretation is correct, there are a number of implications:

  • Making sand sculptures or “sand castles”, as many of our children love to do today in the dunes and beaches, is an activity that dates back at least to the Middle Stone Age, around 130,000 years ago.


Read more: Drawing in the beach sand? Our ancestors did the same 140,000 years ago


  • This would be the earliest known example of humans creating an image of a creature other than themselves – a form of representational art

  • the tracing may be a springboard for the later emergence of representational cave art.

Incredible symmetry

The rock was found about 30 km east of Blombos Cave, known for its paleoart. These include an ocher engraving that dates back 77,000 years and a drawing that dates back 73,000 years.



Read more: Blombos Cave, in South Africa, houses the first drawing of a human being


Directly dating the specimen would involve removing a large chunk of it, damaging it – something we are not willing to consider. But dating of nearby rocks using optically stimulated luminescence suggests it was created during the Middle Stone Age, around 130,000 years ago.

The stingray ‘sculpture’ with measuring bar (10cm) for scale.
Jan De Vynck, Author provided (no reuse)

The near-perfect outline and proportions are evident by comparing the specimen’s symmetrical outline to that of a blue stingray. Looking at the rock from behind shows more symmetry, as well as evidence of what appears to be a stub of a tail. (We found no evidence that the tail had recently broken off, and we speculate that it may have been intentionally “amputated” when the sculpture was created.)

We assert that either the artist was phenomenally talented at recording such details or that the image was traced. If it was tracked, the disc’s width of less than 30 cm implies it was made from a small, immature male or female.

The notion of tracing is related to both the size of the feature (similar to that of a stingray) and its almost perfect shape. Furthermore, the multiple levels of symmetry occur not only in the contour of the rock and in the areas corresponding to the fins, but also in the pattern engraved on its surface.

Symmetry is always intriguing and can have many origins, only one of which is human. But it always begs for an explanation, and these multiple levels of symmetry support a hominin origin: the possibility that the combination of multiple symmetrical features is due to chance alone is, in our opinion, remote. It was previously reported by researchers that ancient hominids appreciated and recognized symmetry.

The record of ancient art

So where does our postulated sand sculpture fit into the emergence of art in ancient records?

The magnificent corpus of Western European rock art, which began some 40,000 years ago, appears to emerge abruptly, as if from nowhere, preceded mainly by abstract symbols from diverse global locations. There is a gap of around 90,000 years between the creation of this supposed stingray sand sculpture and the appearance of these works of art on cave walls in Europe, the most famous of which is Chauvet Cave in France.

The concept that the original art of the world is in the sand, and therefore the sand is the original canvas, provides enough time for these skills to be honed over the intervening millennia. The absence of such art in the archaeological record can simply be attributed to the absence of suitable rocks preserved from the intervening ages.

In fact, ammoglyphs (patterns made in the sand by ancestral hominids and now evident on rocks) have only been reported on the southern Cape coast. This is a reminder of the rarity of ancient paleoart and the reality of taphonomic bias: leather and wood decompose more quickly than bone, which decays more quickly than rock, and ancient paleoart may have been more common than which is suggested by the scant examples in the archaeological record. . Furthermore, it reminds us that there are more forms of ancient rock art than engraving, painting or drawing.

A trampoline

We suggest, therefore, that the tracing in the sand can constitute a possible “springboard” between abstract images and images of creatures created “from scratch”. A flattened animal like the stingray would have provided a suitable model for tracking, compared to more three-dimensional varieties. We provisionally suggest a sequence of progression of representational paleoart, from the initial tracing in the sand, to the creation of images in the sand (through copying or memory), and then to cave art.

Art is a very important part of our existence as humans. This means that ideas about how and when it began are of interest and importance to many. If our suggestion is correct, it would not only delay the time when our distant ancestors created art of another kind, but it could also help explain what has hitherto seemed enigmatic: the seemingly sudden appearance of magnificent art on the walls of the deep. of the caves. Western Europe.

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