Diepkloof Eggshell Engravings
Middle Paleolithic Abstract Art, South Africa.

Pin it

Engraved Ostrich Eggshell
Diepkloof Rock Shelter (c.60,000 BCE)
This prehistoric crosshatching ranks
alongside the Earliest art ever created
by anatomically modern man.

Diepkloof Eggshell Engravings (c.60,000 BCE)
Prehistoric Abstract Art


Diepkloof Rock Shelter
Ostrich Eggshell Engravings
Related Articles

More geometric abstract symbols
found engraved on eggshells
at Diepkloof.


Aurignacian Art
(40,000-25,000 BCE)
Gravettian Art
(25,000-20,000 BCE)
Solutrean Art
(20,000-15,000 BCE)
Magdalenian Art
(15,000-10,000 BCE)
Mesolithic Art
(about 10,000-6,000 BCE)
Neolithic Art
(about 6,000-2,000 BCE)

Significance of Diepkloof's Stone Age Art

Diepkloof Rock Shelter is a prehistoric cave in Western Cape, South Africa, which contains some of the oldest Stone Age art on the planet. Recently, researchers from the Department of Archeology at the University of Cape Town, and the Institute of Prehistory and Quaternary Geology at the University of Bordeaux, have found a series of prehistoric engravings incised in Ostrich eggshells, which date back as far as 60,000 BCE. The Diepkloof discovery underlines the significance of the Blombos Cave Engravings recently unearthed at Blombosfontein Nature Reserve on the Southern Cape coastline east of Cape Town, which were dated to approximately 75,000 BCE. The prehistoric art found at both sites is characterized by similar abstract signs, namely patterns of crosshatching. The evidence from Diepkloof and Blombos - and from other paleolithic sites such as Klasies River Cave 1 and the caves at Klein Kliphuis and Wonderwerk - indicates that there was a tradition of abstract (possibly symbolic) decoration in the region - some 30,000 years earlier than in Europe. Given the current debate about who created the first parietal art in Europe (viz, the El Castillo cave paintings in Spain) - resident Neanderthals or anatomically modern human immigrants from Africa, the excavations at Diepkloof and Blombos seem to confirm that African modern man is a more likely candidate.

To see how the Diepkloof engravings fit into the later evolution of cave art during the Upper Paleolithic in Europe and elsewhere, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

Diepkloof Rock Shelter

The sandstone cave is situated about 10 miles from the shoreline of the Atlantic near Elands Bay about 90 miles north of Cape Town. Measuring roughly 25 metres wide and 15 metres in depth, it is set in a steep-sided hill overlooking the Verlorenvlei River. The cave was first examined in 1973 by archeologists Cedric Poggenpoel and John Parkington. Since 1999, given the renewed focus on Africa as the cradle of Stone Age art, excavation was continued by a combined team from Bordeaux and Cape Town under Pierre-Jean Texier. So far, the team have uncovered a series of archeological layers which reveal that the cave was continuously occupied from at least 130,000 BCE to about 45,000 BCE. These layers span the pre-Stillbay, Stillbay, Howiesons Poort, and post-Howiesons Poort archeological periods. The shelter contains evidence of several different Paleolithic tool cultures associated with anatomically modern humans.

Note: For a comparison with later African art, see the animal figures painted on the Apollo 11 Cave Stones (c.25,500 BCE).

Ostrich Eggshell Engravings

In addition to stone tools and numerous other artifacts, researchers discovered 270 fragments (no larger than 20–30 mm) from an estimated 25 ostrich eggs, buried in 18 archeological layers dating to between 55,000 BCE and 65,000 BCE. The eggshells - were engraved with a variety of geometric motifs, mostly crosshatching, a style of abstract art used on pieces of ochre at Klasies River Cave, the caves at Klein Kliphuis, Wonderwerk and Blombos. In fact, pieces of eggshell were found dating to the entire occupation-span (130-45,000 BCE), but only from the Howiesons Poort period (55-60,000 BCE) were engraved. Of course, no one is suggesting that the ostrich eggs were a form of mobiliary art, or an example of "art for art's sake". They were almost certainly used as water containers (capacity about 1 litre), since hunter-gatherers in the region's Kalahari Desert are known to have used ostrich eggshells for this purpose throughout the Middle and Late Paleolithic era, and some still do. In addition, the pattern of decorative symbols incised upon them was probably intended to indicate who owned them and possibly what they contained. The large number of engraved shell fragments enabled researchers to conclude that there were rules for what patterns of decorative art were allowed, although some stylistic variation was permitted. In addition, patterns changed over time. Crosshatching dominated during the earlier 12 layers at Diepkloof, but were then superceded by parallel line motifs. The differing eggshell motifs are yet more evidence that these modern humans were quite capable of symbolic thought, and quite accustomed to using basic forms of applied art and design to transform ordinary items into unique ones.

The paleolithic art uncovered at Diepkloof Rock shelter, confirms that Modern man had started to develop a capacity for creating and using symbolic pictographs some 30,000 years before he arrived in Europe, where he created the magnificent Chauvet Cave paintings, as well as the fertility symbols known as Venus figurines that marked the beginning of prehistoric sculpture. This viewpoint has been strengthened by the recent Uranium-Thorium dating of the Sulawesi Cave art (Indonesia) to 37,900 BCE.

Related articles

• For more about prehistoric incising, see: Petroglyphs (290,000-4,000 BCE)

• For details of stone engraving, see: Megalithic Art (9,000-2,000 BCE).

• For more about early culture, see: Ancient Art (2,500,000 BCE - 400 CE).


• For more about Paleolithic arts and crafts in South Africa, see: Homepage.

© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.