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Change the world

11/05/2021

Humans delight in creating patterns in the sand, and more than 100,000 years ago it would appear we were no different. 

People were drawing triangles in the dunes along SA’s southern Cape coast. They had also mastered how to draw perfect circles and sculpted something that closely resembles a stingray, between 70,000 and 158,000 years ago.

“Our most recent finds in this same area are two large triangles on loose slabs of cemented Pleistocene dune surfaces,” says Dr Charles Helm from the African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience (ACCP) at Nelson Mandela University. These examples of “palaeoart ”, or what we call ammoglyphs — carvings , images or symbols made in dune sand that are now cemented into rock known as aeolianite — indicate that early modern humans were capable of creating exceptional geometric patterns.

“We don’t always think of early modern humans or hominins as being smart but there is so much evidence of their innovations found on this coast,” says Dr Jan De Vynck, director of ACCP. “Consider that they had already mastered the use of fire in a sophisticated way to make heat-treated stone tools at least 130,000 years ago.”
 
Each side of the larger of the two triangles is about 1m long and remarkably straight. One possibility the scientists are considering is that very straight sticks or reeds were used to create them. “This wasn’t random, it was an intense and well executed pattern,” says Helm. “The bisector groove that seems to be associated with the larger triangle is slightly off, and might not meet Euclid and Pythagoras’ exacting standards, but it is extremely difficult to create something so perfect in the sand.”
 
Part of the triangles’ uniqueness is that sand was the canvas and Helm says the scientists with whom he is working on this find are not aware of anything anywhere else in the world from the period like this or drawn at this scale. They also don’t know if the triangles were part of something larger as the corners have broken off.
 
This discovery by Helm, De Vynck and Helm’s wife, Linda Helm, is one of the most profound artefact finds of our species worldwide, created between 80,000 and 140,000 years ago.
 
They chanced upon the triangles while covering a very rugged stretch of the coast near Still Bay in search of fossil track sites. Over the past fifteen years they have discovered over 300 fossilised vertebrate tracksites, including four sites with human footprints from the same era on the southern Cape coast. “We came over this rise and said ‘Look at that! What is that?', pointing at one of the triangles,” Helm recalls.
 
The untrained eye would either not notice the triangles or see them as anything interesting, but the three knew they were looking at geometry in the aeolianite.
 
“We had this moment of disbelief, asking ourselves if this might be graffiti or created by natural forces,” De Vynck says: “Graffiti was the main consideration to rule out. From subsequent research and analysis we were able to do so, as graffiti is etched on the surface of rock while the triangles were created around 100,000 years ago when the rock was sand. Both triangles are similar in design and for nature to replicate them on two rocks a few metres apart, with a very similar design (both triangles are split in half by a dissecting line) is further evidence of the human agent that created these forms.”
 
Having ruled out these other possible causes, they felt the weight of the find on their shoulders, as Helm explains: “It is something that has never been found before that takes us back to the roots of our humanity and it is our duty to not only try to deliver good science but to share this with the world, which we did through the article in Rock Art Research and now with a wider audience through this feature.” In so doing they say the weight of the find is partially relieved.
 
De Vynck recently returned to the site and the smaller triangle has already been taken away by storm surge as both triangles are at the base of cliffs that are covered by the ocean at high tide.
 
“These finds offer brief windows into our very distant past as the solidified sand surfaces of the period have been fortuitously re-exposed by natural forces, but not for long as the same natural forces will destroy or cover them in weeks, months or years, and then they are gone forever. When I saw that the smaller triangle had gone after a few months I felt very anxious as it means the bigger one could also go soon.”...
 
Read the full article as published in the Sunday Times of 2 May 2021, written by Heather Dugmore.
 

Contact information
Dr Jan De Vynck
Senior Researcher and Centre Director
Tel: 082 684 4461
Jan.DeVynck@mandela.ac.za