Ancient sand drawings found

A near perfect circle line and a central depression seen on a rock found on a beach,

Drawing in sand might appear impermanent, with the next wave or wind wiping it out.  This ain’t always the case. Scientists have discovered sand drawings likely made by early humans about 100 000 years ago. That’s drawings made as far back as when several human species inhabited the earth! 
Title photo by Charles Helm

So what did the prehistoric humans draw? What’s left are recurring patterns of circles, cross-hatches, zigzags, and parallel lines. Rock engravings and rock painting in the area show similar motifs adding on to the theory that humans likely made the sand fossils.  

That early humans inhabited the area is already well known. There’ve been many archaeological findings at  Cape South Coast, South Africa. Fossilized footprints from early humans travelling down a dune surface, about 90 000 years ago, were identified some years ago. 

A research team at the ACCP, African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience, and Nelson Mandela University questioned if, in addition to the fossil footprints, ancient sand dunes have preserved other signs of human activity. According to the findings published so far, it seems so. 

How can drawings in sand become a fossil?

If you’re anything like me you might wonder how it’s possible that something drawn in sand can become a stone fossil. The formula contains dry sand,  moist sand or clay and many thousands of years. When dry sand sweeps in and settles over newly made marks or footprints in moist sand it can if it’s untouched for a very, very long time remain even after the sand has turned into rock. Once a weathering affects the rock, the marks can reappear as fossils. 

The scientists mention possible natural phenomena like wind and water or animals causing the fossils but the patterns are difficult to explain as anything else than human-made. The team has even coined a new term for the phenomenon of something once created in sand now seen in rock: an ammoglyph. It’s derived from the Greek ammos, meaning “sand.”

A man drawing a circle in the sand showing how a sand fossil likely was made some 100 000 years ago.
Besides the perfect circle with a depression in the centre is a pair of oval shapes. These may be knee impressions. A forked stick, as in this image of lead scientist Charles Heim, might have made the pattern. Photo by Linda Helm

The findings have the potential to become a new field of study, at a meeting point of archaeology, art, pattern recognition and sedimentology. Human art may have originated on short-lived materials, like wood and sand, even earlier than the very earliest known human art found on permanent materials as on rocks, cave walls, and shells.  

The lead scientist, Mr Charles Helm, and team scientist Mr Jan de Vynck were out doing fieldwork the very day I connected with him. He mentioned: ”We have made further ammoglyph discoveries in the last few weeks, and I can let you know, if you wish, when these findings get published.”  What a teaser. Once here a new post will follow!

A smiley in the sand drawn today just might be what’ll be on display from our time in history in 100 000 years time. I often scribble connected 8’s or words in the sand. What do you recurrently draw?

3D photogrammetry image of part of sand fossil showing the start-finish area of a near perfectly drawn circle.
Special 3D photography of the circular fossil shown at the top shows the possible start/ending point of the drawing. Photo by Carina Helm

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