Is This Stingray-Shaped Rock the First Artwork Depicting an Animal?

A team of researchers hypothesize that a kite-shaped rock found off the coast of South Africa may actually be one of the world’s earliest known works of animal art due to its resemblance to an endemic stingray species.

In a new paper published in the journal Rock Art Research, co-researchers Charles Helm and Alan Whitfield argue that the rock is an example of an ammoglyph — a term coined by Helm in 2019 to describe human mark-making on sand that has been preserved by compacted sedimentary layers deposited by wind.

The rock was found in 2018 by citizen scientist Emily Brink along the Southern Cape shore less than 20 miles from the Blombos Cave, an archaeological site where the earliest drawing by a human was discovered among other examples of human behavior in the Middle Stone Age. The specimen is unremarkable at first glance, but its unusual shape does bear an uncanny likeness to the blue stingray species, which is endemic to southern Africa’s coastal waters. Helm, Whitfield, and their team of seven researchers speculate that due to its shape and size, the stone was made by tracing the outline of an actual blue stingray in the sand.

The researchers note that in addition to accurate proportions, the stone possesses a rather detailed “tail stub,” the base from which the stingray’s lethal barbed tail emerges, though the tail itself is missing. They theorize that blue stingrays posed a serious threat to Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers along the coast and traumatic encounters may have encouraged them to omit or symbolically remove the barb and tail from the tracing.

“We don’t (as yet) have the capacity to distinguish between natural versus anthropogenic breaking off of the tail portion, but we can state that there is no evidence of it having happened recently,” Helm said in an email to Hyperallergic. “The rest is speculation!”

To avoid chipping the hardened sandstone during analysis, the researchers used optically stimulated luminescence to determine the age of the stone and found that it was most likely between 119,000 and 124,000 years old. If they are proven correct and the stone is indeed a depiction of a stingray, that would make the specimen some 85,000 years older than what we currently recognize as the oldest known work of animal art. That work is a remarkable 45,500-year-old cave painting of a warty pig drawn to scale which was found in 2017 in the Leang Tedongnge cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Considering the stark difference between the two and the time between their creations, the researchers posit that tracing may have been a stepping stone toward more advanced representational imagery. There’s always the chance that it’s just a uniquely shaped stone, but only time and additional research will tell.

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