An 60,000-year old artistic movement recorded in ostrich egg shells

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Souvenir shops in South Africa are full of lamps made out of ostrich eggs. The eggs are so big and strong that you can carve and cut intricate designs into their shells. The egg’s contents are emptied through a hole and a bulb can be inserted instead, casting pretty shadows on walls and ceilings. The results are a big draw for modern tourists, but ostrich eggs have a long history of being used as art in South Africa. The latest finds show that people were carvings symbolic patterns into these eggs as early as 60,000 years ago.

Pierre-Jean Texier from the University of Bordeaux discovered a set of 270 eggshell fragments from Howieson Poort Shelter, a South African cave that has been a rich source of archaeological finds. Judging by their patterns, the fragments must have come from at least 25 separate eggs, although probably many more.

Texier says that the sheer number is “exceptional in prehistory”. Their unprecedented diversity and etched patterns provide some of the best evidence yet for a prehistoric artistic tradition. While previous digs have thrown up piecemeal examples of symbolic art, Texier’s finds allow him to compare patterns across individual pieces, to get a feel of the entire movement, rather than the work of an individual.

As you might expect, the millennia haven’t been too kind to the shells but even so, their etchings are still well preserved and Texier even managed to fit some of the pieces together. Despite the variety of fragments, their patterns fall into a very limited set of motifs produced in the same way – a hatched band like a railway track, parallel(ish) lines, intersecting lines, and cross-hatching. It’s possible that, once assembled, these elements would have combined into a more complex artistic whole but Texier notes that he has never found a piece with more than one motif on it.

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Much like any other artistic movement, the shell designs had rules that everyone abided by, but also room for some stylistic latitude. There were four main styles but each had some wiggle room in their execution. The railway track, for example, had lines of different lengths and intersection angles. While some fragments had just one track, others had two or three.

These traditions also seem to have risen into fashion and fallen out of them again. The railway track motif only turns up in the lower parts of the cave and not in eggshells from the upper reaches. Go further up, and it’s the parallel lines motif that dominates. To Texier, the shell motifs are evidence that these prehistoric humans were more than capable of symbolic thought, of using patterns to transform ordinary items into specific and unique ones.

Today, hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari still collect ostrich eggs, for food, as beads, or as water containers. They puncture a small hole in the top of the egg, empty their contents and fill them with water. Texier says, “Some Bushmen groups, like the !Kung, use a graphic and schematic tradition to communicate collective identities as well as individual ones.” He thinks that the prehistoric hunter-gatherers may have used the eggs for a similar purpose. Their engravings may have been used to intentionally mark ostrich eggshell containers and some of the fragments show signs of forced entry, typical of modern egg-based water containers. To Texier, they were “elements of a collective and complex social life”, signs of a modern human intelligence operating tens of thousands of years ago.

Christopher Henshilwood, another anthropologist working in South Africa, was also impressed. “Based on sheer numbers the evidence for deliberate decoration and symbol use is compelling.” He adds, “Perhaps the greatest challenge still is in explaining why the tradition of engraving appears to… appear, disappear and then reappear at different times and places.”

Several years ago, Henshilwood found a different piece of abstract art at another South Africa cave called Blombos. It was a slab of ochre, also covered in geometric carvings and dating back to 70,000 years ago. “Is there really a connection betweeen the engraving traditions at 100 ka, 75 ka, 60 ka and those in the Later Stone Age?” he asks. “And why are engraved ostrich eggshells and ochre only found at some Middle Stone Age sites and not others?” 

Reference: Texier, P., Porraz, G., Parkington, J., Rigaud, J., Poggenpoel, C., Miller, C., Tribolo, C., Cartwright, C., Coudenneau, A., Klein, R., Steele, T., & Verna, C. (2010). A Howiesons Poort tradition of engraving ostrich eggshell containers dated to 60,000 years ago at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, South Africa Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0913047107

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