National Geographic

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

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

More on art and archaeology: Prehistoric carving is oldest known figurative art

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There are 7 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Anon
    March 1, 2010

    Ok, so I get that they carved the ostrich egg shells, and the stylistic changes, and all that, and how important it is for our understanding of our culture… but I think you are missing the far more mind-boggling question:
    Where did they plug in the lampcords?

  2. Lilian Nattel
    March 1, 2010

    I just love to imagine those artists of 60,000 years ago. How much have human beings really changed since then? It’s such a short time really.

  3. Paul W
    March 1, 2010

    Could these eggs and their “decorations” also predate the basic early writing on amphorae used to store grain and identify its owners in the fertile crescent of the Middle East? Is it pure art or did it serve a functional purpose?

  4. llewelly
    March 2, 2010

    Could these eggs and their “decorations” also predate the basic early writing on amphorae used to store grain and identify its owners in the fertile crescent of the Middle East?

    I think the earliest records of grain storage of any sort only went back to about 11,000 BCE – much, much younger than this ostrich egg art.

  5. Passerby
    March 7, 2010

    Not writing, rudimentary counting, another type of record akin to ‘counting sticks’, and the sacred red ochre slab – Hunter-gather clan portable records.
    Doubt it’s simple abstract artwork. Early humans were acting with intent, driven by harsh conditions after a long period of paleoclimate chaos. Ancient South Africans were dispersing, migrating northward. Climate change was afoot, cooling and drying with the onset of glaciation.
    http://www.esd.ornl.gov/projects/qen/nercAFRICA.html

  6. Passerby
    March 7, 2010

    >How much have human beings really changed since then? It’s such a short time really.
    Well, it’s a short time-frame….if you are a rock.
    On potential for ancient uses for these shells: probably water storage, but maybe for seed and nut transport and storage as well.
    Before grain cultivation 7-10K years ago, wild grains may have been collected, stored and crudely prepared as a mash, but they wouldn’t have been a dietary rarity because ancient grains heads were low yield and had limited very geographical range. Moreover, ancient human lacked the technical innovations necessary for large-scale grain harvesting: threshing, winnowing, and grinding. Grinding broke down grain cells walls and liberated nutrients that would be otherwise unaccessible to gut mechanical or chemical digestion.
    Domestication of grains induced dramatic changes in diet-induced cellular metabolism in humans. Just as the ancient practice of cooking meat and ground roots in simple hearths have been hypothesized to have altered brain size and anatomic features at a much earlier time (long before 60 KYA), the addition of cooked domesticated grains to the human diet dramatically changed gut microbiota and energy supply, with concurrent shift in secretory and immune function, by introducing an ample supply of fast-acting energy in short-chain fatty acids and starch.
    These caloric benefits came with a cost: anti-nutrients, grain components like phytates, lectins (wheat gluten) and alkylrescorcinols (inflammatory agents).
    The timing of animal and grain domestication with sedentary (non-migrating) lifestyle in permanent settlements, and attendant population and technological growth is critical for understanding emergence of many human pathogens and chronic diseases.
    It’s a very, very interesting story. That’s what can happen in just 10,000 years time.

  7. Julien Riel-Salvatore
    March 9, 2010

    A few comments: the site’s actually called Diepkloof, and the engrave ostrich eggshell fragment were found in layers attributed to the Howiesons Poort cultural tradition, which is documented in only a few of the site’s archaeological layers over a period of ca. 10,000 years. This raises the questions of why these behaviors (both use of ostrich eggs as containers, and their decoration) appear so comparatively fleeting, especially since it’s generally argued they represent evidence for the ‘modern’ behavior critical to H. sapiens success. I discuss some of this here:
    http://averyremoteperiodindeed.blogspot.com/2010/03/60000-year-old-decorated-ostrich.html

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