Ancient humans may have made patterns and carvings on South African beaches
(MENAFN – The Conversation) One of the first things many children – or even adults – can do when they are on a beach or dune is to create patterns in the sand or sculptures in the shape of castles. sand.
Many generations of humans have enjoyed these activities. But so far, no evidence has been reported to suggest how much of this could have happened in human history. Now my colleagues and I believe we may have found such evidence at sites along the southern Cape coast of South Africa.
Southern Africa has an extensive repertoire of paleo-art, and the southern Cape Coast of South Africa, which stretches east along the Cape Coast, contains one of the archaeological records of the richest Middle Stone Age in the world. This includes an engraved piece of ocher and the earliest reported example of rock painting. Evidence suggests that the area may have been critical to the survival of the human species.
This coastal region now contains extensive aeolianites (cemented dune deposits) and cemented foreshore deposits. These rocks are the cemented remains of dune and beach surfaces that existed when our distant ancestors and many other vertebrates made tracks in the Middle-Late Pleistocene region around 158,000 to 70,000 years ago. We know the age of the rocks from the results of previous dating studies.
It may appear that the traces and patterns created in the sand are fleeting, destined to be covered by the effects of the next windstorm or tide. Perhaps surprisingly, however, many of these documents are preserved, ready to be identified when re-exposed by cliff collapse or erosion forces. Our team has identified over 140 vertebrate trails along this coastline. For example, up to 40 footprints made by hominids traveling on the surface of a dune, and estimated to be 90,000 years old, were identified at one site by members of our research team in 2016.
So, given that we know that humans moved through these landscapes, we wondered if there might also be evidence of other forms of human activity on these sand surfaces, such as patterns, symbols, carvings or foraging. If so, could such ancient canvases have left traces of human activity that can be discerned and interpreted today? Indeed, could such evidence constitute a hitherto undocumented form of expression and activity of medieval Stone Age hominids? Our results suggest that the answer to these questions may be “yes”.
A plethora of patterns
At one site, we found a large, almost perfectly circular groove, as well as a depression in the center of the circle. Next to this feature was a pair of oval shapes that could represent knee prints. If this circle was generated by a human, then one possible mechanism might have involved the use of a forked stick, in the same way that a compass is used by children in math lessons.
The author shows how a forked stick could have been used by a kneeling human to create a circular pattern in the sand. Linda helm
Other designs included groove features next to possible human footprints and a “hashtag” pattern that resembles paleo-art known in the region. We have also identified two possible animal images, one of which may have taken the form of a sculpture of a stingray. We have proposed a new term to describe the patterns made in sand by humans, which lithify over time through a natural cementation process: ammoglyph (‘ammos’ being Greek for ‘sand’, and ‘glyph’ being Greek for a sculpture, a symbol).
If our interpretations are correct, these results represent two important things. First, the evidence of a human presence on these ancient dunes and beaches is greater than previously thought. Second, this evidence would support that of other lines of research that attest to the cognitive abilities of early humans in this region.
There are a multitude of lines, grooves, patterns and shapes on these rocky surfaces.
One of our challenges, therefore, was to determine whether a hominin “signature” could reasonably be deduced among this plethora of shapes. We have described other possible agents that might have caused such patterns (such as wind, water, fossil roots and branches, and traces made by invertebrates, reptiles, birds and other mammals) . We also looked at how to distinguish between old designs made in sand and newer designs carved in rock – i.e. graffiti.
In some of the cases we have described, we have simply pointed out features that seemed confusing, which could have been created by humans, but for which other causes could not be reasonably ruled out. One site contained models that we had never encountered before and which do not appear anywhere in the ichnological literature (traces of fossils). After careful consideration, we interpreted this as possibly representing a seal tracking site, and we will report on it elsewhere.
In other cases, such as the circular feature with the central depression, the presence of grooves next to possible human footprints and the “hashtag” pattern, evidence of a human origin appeared more convincing. However, we have taken a cautious approach, recognizing that absolute certainty is elusive.
Samples were taken for dating, adjacent to several of the sites we have described. We look forward to these results. Non-invasive imaging studies can help study rocks with patterns suggesting foraging behavior.
We hope that other scientists will critically examine the results and interpretations that we have presented. Recognizing that not all ancient sand surfaces were “ perishable, ” but that some of them retained an extraordinary record of what happened on them, suggests a previously underestimated way to interpret ancient human expression.
The resulting search for ammoglyphs on the southern Cape coast has the potential to become a new field of study, at a meeting point of archeology, art, ichnology, paleoanthropology, shape recognition and sedimentology.
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