Africa’s inventions: abstract art (82,000 years ago)

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Humans evolved from the continent of Africa which makes Africa the longest inhabited continent on the planet. It is therefore not surprising that people from this continent originated and invented many things present-day humans built on, progressed and advanced.

The history of African inventions dates to as far back as before modern humans even existed.

Human genetic ancestor, the Homo Erectus, invented stone tools and discovered how to make fire.

When anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa, they started inventing other things as well. The bow and arrow, fishing hooks, harpoons, projectile weapons, even boats were first produced by Africans thousands of years before documented history; and when modern humans started migrating out of Africa most likely about 50,000 years ago based on available evidence, the Africans remaining on the continent kept on inventing.

Art is one of the earliest creations of humans and Africans were the pioneers of art.

Evidence of this, about 73,000 years old was discovered in the Blombos cave of South Africa (you can read more about the Blombos cave findings here), but even much earlier was the discovery of evidence of abstract art in Morocco of 82,000 year old ornamental shells, making it the earliest form of abstract art created by humanity.

Cave of Pigeons Taforalt, Morocco

The discovery in eastern Morocco of perforated sea shells that were at least 82,000 years old showed that Africans had indulged in ornamental arts at least for 40,000 years before the Europeans, who were previously thought to have been the first humans to do so.

This discovery along with the findings in the Blombos cave of South Africa has proven the presence of a much older symbolic material culture in Africa than anywhere else in the rest of the world.

The seashell beads were found in a cave that was discovered in 1908, known as the cave of pigeons in Taforalt, eastern Morocco and till date is still adjudged to be the oldest shell beads in the world.

Major excavations in the cave began in 1944, by 1977 archaeological deposits was discovered. Investigations began in 2003 to explore more fully the extent of the deposits.

Ancient Shells Discovered in Morocco

The study of this discovery lends more credence to the fact that humans originated from Africa and has joined the plethora of evidence that already supports this fact.

The study was carried out by a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the French National Centre For Scientific Research also known as Centre National de La Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) working together with scientists from Morocco, United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia.

The team was led by Abdelijalil Bouzouggar from the National Institute of Archaeological and Heritage Sciences Morocco (INSAP, Morocco) and Nick Barton of the University of Oxford UK.

The beads which were unearthed by archaeologists consists of 13 deliberately perforated shells, some of them still covered with red ocher.

The shells were of the Nassarius gibbosulus species; a specie of sea snail commonly known as the swollen nassa.

The shells were found in a stratigraphic sequence formed by ashy sediments among the remains of hearths, along with other traces of human activity such as man-made stone tools, like sharp biface points which were typical of Aterian technology in North Africa. Other traces of human activity were the animal remains of mainly wild horses and hares that were probably left over food remains.

A study of the shells revealed that they were gathered from dead sea snails from Moroccan beaches that were at the time located at about 40 km from the cave.

More investigations further revealed that the Ancient Africans selected, transported, perforated and coloured the shells. The colouring might have been for symbolic use.

Traces of wear discovered on the shells indicated they wear worn as adornments for a lengthy period of time most likely as necklaces, bracelets or they might have been sewn into clothes.

Two independent laboratories took on the task of determining the age of the shells, they both employed up to four different techniques, and both arrived at the same conclusion; that the shells were about 82,000 years old.

A comparison of such ancient beads found in Africa and those discovered in Eurasia showed differences; while such beads discovered in Africa were mainly comprised of just of two types of shell. The same cannot be said for Eurasia, as hundreds of different types of shells were used as beads.

Unlike in the present times, African arts were not regarded as arts when 18th and 19th century Europeans first came in contact with them.

When the first African artefacts were brought back to Europe they were regarded as curiosities rather than arts and for centuries never had a place in European art museums, the artefacts rather became a part of natural history museums and were classified in the same category with items such as utilitarian objects, fossilized remains, skeletal remains, flora, and fauna.

In 18th century Europe, non-Western art was viewed as not unique and simplistic and therefore were not considered to be art.

By the 19th century, clouded by the framework of social Darwinism and other beliefs that justified racism, people from Africa, the Pacific and Native Americans were regarded as less civilized or even lesser humans. Not surprisingly opinions about their arts were influenced by preconceived ideas about race, therefore in the Euro-American sense their creations were not categorized as art.

By the early 20th century, however, those same objects that were not considered arts began to be exhibited in European fine arts museums and galleries as arts, and over time became popular, widely collected and even became highly sought after. Not that the objects changed, they remained exactly the same; rather there was a shift in attitudes and assumptions as to what constituted arts.

Today some of the early assumptions of the Europeans as to what constitutes arts is to some extent still a part of the western aesthetic system. For instance, what Europeans consider “high art” is thought of as paintings and sculptures.

Furthermore, because many African artworks serve specific functions, Europeans sometimes do not regard them as art.

The concept of arts that also served ritualistic and political purposes is a relatively recent development for Europeans despite that before the 18th century, most artistic traditions across the globe served functional purposes even though they might have as well served aesthetic functions as well. A healthy debate can be had that all arts were created to serve purposes and not just for art’s sake.

Even though African works of art were made to serve purposes, they still embodied aesthetic preferences. To appreciate the impact of recent African art on Modern art, have a look at our article about its influence on cubism, fauvism and expressionist.


  • National Centre For Scientific Research also known as Centre National de La Recherche Scientifique(CNRS). Discovery Of The Oldest Adornments in The World. Published by EurekAlert!. 18th June, 2007.
  • Abdeljalil Bouzouggar, Nick Barton, Marian Vanhaeren, Francesco d’Errico, Simon Collcutt, Tom Higham, Edward Hodge, Simon Parfitt, Edward Rhodes, Jean-Luc Schwenninger, Chris Stringer, Elaine Turner, Steven Ward, Abdelkrim Moutmir, and Abdelhamid Stambouli. 82,000-year-old Shell beads From North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behaviour. PNAS June 12, 2007 104 (24) 9964-9969.

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Africa’s inventions: abstract art (82,000 years ago)

by Editorial Team time to read: 5 min