Africa’s inventions: art and paint (73,000 years ago)

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Africa’s contributions to the development of the world are immense. Sadly, her achievements and inputs are downplayed or misrepresented, but it still does not change the fact that most of Africa’s inventions were the foundation upon which human development advanced.

Many people are not aware that most inventions and skills which today have positively changed the world originated from Africa.

Mathematics originated from Africa more than 35,000 years ago[1]. This fact can be traced to the discovery of a mathematical object in the Lebombo mountains of Swaziland called the Lebombo bone. Not just the discovery of the Lebombo bone; another 20,000-year-old mathematical tool called the Ishango bone was discovered in Northeastern Congo.

Africa introduced medicine to the world over 4,000 years ago from Egypt. The earliest ever known surgery was carried out in Egypt in about 2750 BC[2].

Africans invented writing over 5,000 years ago when the earliest form of writing known to man was the hieroglyphs.

Architecture originated from Africa with the Egyptians who built many different structures and monuments including the great pyramids[3].

Mining skills originated in Africa more than 43,000 years ago in Swaziland, and much later on gold was mined in Ancient Nubia[4] and within the kingdom of Kerma.

Even speech and language was first spoken by Africans somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa during the stone age about 100,000 years ago, according to available evidence[5].

This article, however, discusses the invention of arts; it was Africans that introduced arts to humanity for the first time about 73,000 years ago, and Africans were the first artists. This fact was brought to light with the discovery of ancient artworks in the Blombos cave of South Africa.

Blombos Cave South Africa

Not only did the first human artists create works of art in the Blombos cave but they actually had to employ some material science to first of all produce the paints that were used in creating these works even though it was as far back as 73,000 years ago.

The Blombos cave that housed this discovery is located in the Blomboschfontein Nature Reserve, near Cape Town, South Africa. And has since evolved from a local small-scale excavation into a full-scale high tech international archaeological project.

The cave was formerly protected as a provincial heritage site on 29th may 2015 by the Heritage Western Cape. It contains middle stone age deposits that are between 70,000 to 100,000 years old.

When the cave was excavated in 1991, some interesting archaeological discoveries were made which includes refined bone and stone tools, marine and terrestrial faunal remains like tortoise, birds, shellfish, different sizes of mammals, and ostrich egg shells. Other findings are marine shell beads, engraved bone, engraved ochre and also ochre processing tool kits.

The findings in this cave along with a handful of other excavations within the region shed new light on the perception of early humans and reaffirmed the ingenuity and early creative behavior of the Africans that inhabited these places.

The cross-hatching styled drawings done with ochre on a stone fragment found in the Blombos cave is still the earliest ever known drawing by any human in the world.

Ochre is a natural clay earth pigment; it has a mixture of ferric oxide and different amounts of clay and sand which gives it its range of colour from yellow to deep orange or brown. There is a variant of ochre that gives off a reddish tint and known as red ochre; this is as a result of large amounts of hematite present in it.

An Engraved Piece Of Ochre Found In The Blombos Cave

In the Blombos cave, more than 1,500 pieces of ochre-like material were found. Many of them show signs of wear as a result of intentional use, some of them were even deliberately engraved. An example is a discovery of two finely engraved pieces of ochre in 2002 which went on to be published in the science magazine[6]. The surface of the ochres was intentionally scrapped to form a cross-hatched designed engraved pattern.

These earliest forms of abstract arts are to date the earliest recorded in human history.

The early Africans grounded the ochre into powder and turned it into paint. They had workshops where the ochre was processed and stored. A BBC report of 13th October, 2011 described these workshops as paint factories[7].

The liquified ochre was then stored in the shells of South African abalone; this is according to the further discovery made in 2008 of an ochre processing workshop within the cave containing tool kits. Some elements of the tool kit discovered are Ochre, charcoal, bone, grindstones, and hammer-stones.

Dried up Liquid Ochre In Shell Of Abalone Found at The Blombos Cave

The workshop seemed to have been deserted as soon as the ochre paint was manufactured. The way the contents of the workshop were found, it was as if someone had carefully put them there with an intent to come back later to retrieve or use them.

This discovery is evidence of the scientific and organized thinking prowess of early Africans.

As far back as 73,000 years ago, Africans deliberately planned, produced and curated a pigmented compound that involved a series of complex tasks like procuring and combining the raw materials, which shows that they had a mental process to follow. They probably used pyrotechnology to extract the fat from the bones to be used and also employed the use of shell containers for mixing and storage. This demonstrates early conceptual and cognitive abilities which unknown to humans in other continents from that period.

“These finds indicate that humans were certainly thinking in a modern way, in a way that is cognitively advanced, at least 100,000 years ago” said professor Christopher Henshilwood of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

The marine shell beads found at the Blombos cave demonstrated the decorative or ornamental side of the arts of early Africans.

The marine shells were pierced through the aperture with a bone tool to create a small perforation through which sinew or some sought of cord was passed, and it was worn as a personal ornament.

A cluster of 24 perforated shell beads were found at the cave. Contextual information, morphometric, technological and use-wear analyses of the beads showed that the beads were actually strung together and worn as an ornament.

73,000 Year Old Drawings Found In The Blombos Cave South Africa

Further investigations of the ornamental beads revealed chronological regularities and variability as regards the stringing methods, manufacture and also the design of the beads. The beads did not seem idiosyncratic; there were recoveries of different groups of beads each with different wear patterns and colouring that seem to be specific to particular groups.

This discovery sheds light on what might have been the earliest human use of symbolic material artifacts to distinguish social groups.

Before the discoveries of the Blombos cave artifacts and artworks, it was previously thought that the Europeans were the first ever humans to create arts and indulge in ornamental use. This is as a result of well-documented abstract art representations in European caves from about 40,000 years ago, by the early African migrants.

The Blombos artistic creations as it turned out has been discovered to be earlier, not just earlier but older by at least 30,000 years! And even then was popular in the South African region at the time based on discoveries and studies of other middle stone age sites in the region.

Professor Chris Stringer from London Natural History Museum said “Twenty or thirty years ago, there was a view that Europe was really the place where all the big action was taking place, wonderful painted caves 30,000-35,000 years ago, and people decorating their bodies. We now know that this behavior goes back further in Africa; it goes back to 100,000 years, perhaps even more than 100,000 years. People were starting to express social identity in completely new ways. And there is a view that this behavior is linked with complex language. So it may indicate these people were communicating in a fully modern way.”

The fact that paints were manufactured in such a systematic way tens of thousand years ago is an indication of an advanced level of thinking. Today the global paint and coats production industry with worth $160 billion and expected to be worth $200 billion by 2022.

The discoveries of the Blombos cave is not the only evidence of the earliest conceptual thinking and artistic expression of humans, other artifacts have been discovered in Oued Djebbana, Algeria and also Morocco that dates back to about 70,000 years ago[8]


  • Jonathan Amos. Ancient “Paint Factory” unearthed. Published by BBC News, 13 Oct, 2011.
  • Henshilwood, Christopher S., et al. (2002) Emergence of Modern Human Behavior: Middle Stone Age Engravings from South Africa. Science, 295, 1278–1280
  • Vanhaeren, Marian, et al. (2006) Middle Paleolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria. Science, 312, 1785–1788


  6. Henshilwood, Christopher S.(2002)
  7. Jonathan Amos. (2011)
  8. Vanhaeren, Marian, (2006)

2 thoughts on “Africa’s inventions: art and paint (73,000 years ago)”

  1. Pingback: Africa's inventions: abstract art (82,000 years ago) - Think Africa

  2. Pingback: Twelve Ways Africa Used Art - Think Africa

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Africa’s inventions: art and paint (73,000 years ago)

by Editorial Team time to read: 6 min