Painting in the sand at the beach. Our ancestors did the same thing 140,000 years ago.

Painting in the sand at the beach. Our ancestors did the same thing 140,000 years ago.

Painting in the sand at the beach. Our ancestors did the same thing 140,000 years ago.

The urge to paint in the sand or create sand sculptures seems irresistible, as one can see by walking along modern beaches and dunes. Sand is a vast canvas, and it may have been used as a canvas much longer than people think.

When we think of ancient antique paintings, we may think of cave murals (pictographs), pictures carved into rocks (petroglyphs), painted on trees (dendroglyphs), or rocks arranged in a pattern (geoglyphs). Until recently, we could only speculate that the earliest art may have been found in the sand.



We are, respectively, a vertebrate zoogeographer studying fossil vertebrate footprints and tracks, and a physical geographer interested in the function and long-term evolution of coastal landscapes.

We are part of a team that has spent the past 15 years studying vertebrate footprints dating back to the Pleistocene, 70,000 to 400,000 years ago, on the southern Cape coast of South Africa. In the course of that research we have found that we can not only identify human and animal footprints, but also recognize patterns that our human ancestors may have made in the sand. They are hardened ancient sand dunes that form along the coastline. These ancient “sand arts” have never been described before, so we coined a new term: “ammoglyphs” (“ammos” means “sand” in Greek).

In a recent paper published in Ichnos, we dated seven hominin ichnosites (a term that includes footprints and other traces) from the southern Cape coast. Those we interpreted as ammoglyphs were found at four of the sites. The oldest of these are dated to between 149,000 and 129,000 years ago.

An important challenge in studying any paleorecord, whether it be traces, fossils, or other ancient deposits, is to determine how old the material is. In the case of the aeolianites of the Cape South Coast, we use a dating technique called photostimulated luminescence.

This indicates how much time has passed since the sand grains were last exposed to sunlight and allows us to estimate when the aeolianite deposits were buried when the ancient dune surfaces were formed. Considering how the footprints and markings in this survey were formed, they were impressions formed on wet sand followed by rapid burial by the blowing of new sand. This is a good method because we can be reasonably certain that the dating “clock” began at about the same time the footprints and markings were formed.

Of course, we had to be diligent to rule out other causes of the rock patterns we encountered, including modern graffiti. Of course, we had to be diligent in our efforts to rule out other causes, including modern graffiti. But if our ancestors’ footprints are still on the surface of the dunes and beaches, then the patterns they may have made with their sticks and fingers must also be present.

Drawing in the sand at the beach? Our ancestors did the same 140,000 years ago

Author Charles Helm demonstrates how one of the ammoglyphs was probably made. Credit: Linda Helm

Understanding the Traces
Two of the four sites we dated for this paper left only traces of what appear to be ammogryphs. The other two sites had either knee marks or footprints associated with the ammogliffs. At one of the latter sites, a human paw print was found associated with a linear groove or small round depression. We were unable to determine whether these were paleopaintings, some kind of “message,” or practical functions such as foraging. Chronologically, two ammoglyphic sites stand out. The oldest one dates from between 149,000 and 129,000 years ago.

The one found at this site consisted of a series of long, perfectly straight grooves in a triangular pattern containing a single angular bisector. We jokingly referred to the artist as “Pleistocene Pythagoras.” The rock was found in a remote and rugged location, destined to be destroyed by storm surge and tidal waves. We successfully rescued the rock by helicopter and put it on display at the Blombos Archaeological Museum in Still Bay.

The second site was dated to about 136,000 years ago, albeit with an error of about 8,000 years. It had almost two-thirds of a circular ditch, a central depression, and the remains of two knees. The rock surface was broken at the edges of the circle, suggesting that the original circle was probably complete. One characteristic of the sand that is not present in other possible paleopaintings of the rock surface is the ease with which large circles can be carved. Our interpretation of this circular ammoglyph is that the central depression represents where one end of the forked stick was fixed by the kneeling man, while the other part was rotated to form an almost perfect circle.

As anyone who has tried it knows, it is incredibly difficult to draw a perfect circle without a compass. We speculate that perhaps a straight reed was placed in the sand, but we don’t know for sure.

We also noted the similarities between the shapes of some supposed ammoglyphs and the shapes of ancient geometric carvings in caves along this coastline, such as the Brombos Caves.

An Ancient Impulse
We can conclude that encouraging our children and grandchildren to play in the sand, to draw patterns and build sandcastles is a deeply primitive act that dates back to ancient times, at least 140,000 years ago.

The creation of art is one of the characteristics that makes us human. Knowing that our ancestors long ago did the same things we do today probably helps to further that sense of “humanity.

Source: Painting in the sand at the beach. Our ancestors did the same thing 140,000 years ago.

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