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Friday, 11 January, 2002, 16:15 GMT
Scientists uncover secrets of the sands
Ochre with drawings on recovered from a cave in South Africa
Ancient drawings date modern man back 77,000 years
Scientists at a Welsh university have proved that modern man is much older than was originally thought by using advanced dating processes to analyse grains of sand from a South African cave.

The team from University of Wales, Aberystwyth has been dating pieces of red ochre uncovered by archaelogists in a beach cave, 190 miles from Cape Town.

Nelson Mandela
Former President Nelson Mandela is supporting the project

The evidence they have come up suggests man developed the hallmarks of modern behaviour tens of thousands of years earlier than was previously estimated.

The Blombos Cave project - on which the Aberystwyth research team has been working - is supported by the former South African President Nelson Mandela.

In the project, scientists have been working in an international team alongside members of France's Climate and Environment Sciences Laboratory and led by Christopher Henshilwood, an archaeologist from the Iziko Museums of Cape Town.

After studying around 2,000 grains of sand, the team at Aberystwyth University was able to date ancient carvings decorating pieces of red ochre found in the cave.

The carvings are approximately 70,000 years old, which makes them at least twice as old as cave paintings previously thought to be the earliest works of art.

The feeling is, if they were abstract, they probably had meaning that was communicated from one person to another

Geoff Duller
Scientist Geoff Duller and his team used a technique called thermoluminescence to date the drawings on the ochre.

Under the technique sand grains were bombarded with lasers, to measure how much radiation they had absorbed after being blown into the dark cave and covering the ancient carvings.

It is possible that their abstract nature of the carvings might hint at the development of humans.

Many experts had previously suggested that man developed the skills to think conceptually and create depitctional images had emerged relatively late - about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.

However, this discovery suggests man developed much earlier and more gradually - at around 77,000 years ago.
Scientist Geoff Duller
Scientist Geoff Duller
"The feeling is, if they were abstract, they probably had meaning that was communicated from one person to another," said Mr Duller

"And that had to have been done verbally."

"So it does give us some indication that maybe speech developed very early on in the history of man," he added.

The sand studied by the Aberystwyth team was sandwiched between layers of rock which completely covering the carvings.

More than 8,000 pieces of ochre, many of thema bearing signs of use, have been recovered from the South African cave.

BBC Wales's Steve Jones
"Geoff Duller and his team painstakingly studied 2,000 individual grains"
BBC Wales' Steve Jones
"The sands of time have lived up to their name"
See also:

10 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
'Oldest' prehistoric art unearthed
14 Dec 01 | Education
UK research 'world class'
14 Dec 01 | Education
Oxbridge research is tops
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