Is This Stingray-Shaped Rock the Oldest Known Animal Art?

While they urge caution, researchers think an artist may have traced a stingray in the sand some 130,000 years ago

Side by side image of kite-shaped rock
The symmetrical rock was found near Still Bay, a town located about 200 miles east of Cape Town. Helm et al. / Rock Art Research, 2024

In 2018, citizen scientist Emily Brink was exploring near Still Bay, a town on the southern coast of South Africa, when an unusual rock caught her eye. It was symmetrical, with four protruding points—similar to the shape of a kite.

Now, researchers say the rock could be a sand sculpture created to look like a blue stingray (Dasyatis chrysonata), which are often found in southern Africa. If that’s the case, the artifact could be the earliest known example of humans creating art resembling another species, according to a study published in the journal Rock Art Research.

The rock is made of aeolianite, which forms when sediment solidifies because of wind. Researchers suspect the piece is an ammoglyph, a preserved pattern carved into sand.

A human artist may have traced the body of an actual stingray—likely a male or small immature female—to create the piece, which has the correct proportions and a “near-perfect outline,” as study co-authors Charles Helm and Alan Whitfield write in the Conversation. They add that the rock also has a “tail stub” that may have been intentionally “amputated” by the artist.

Helm is a paleontologist at Nelson Mandela University, while Whitfield is the emeritus chief scientist at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity.

The researchers emphasize that they cannot come to any definitive conclusions. They also can’t date the stone directly, for fear of damaging or destroying it. Instead, they used a technique called optically stimulated luminescence to date nearby rocks, which suggested the artwork could be roughly 130,000 years old.

The rock is the first and only known example of a possible tracing from that time period, Helm tells IFLScience’s Tom Hale.

“The chances of something like this being preserved and amenable to our interpretation are remote, so it is possible that this may be the only example ever identified, but we can always hope that more will become apparent,” he says.

But why a stingray? For one, the creatures are relatively flat, making them easier to trace than other animals. Perhaps, Helm adds, their venomous stings may have “commanded fear and respect” that made stingrays worthy artistic subjects.

Previously, the oldest known artwork depicting an animal was a 45,000-year-old painting of a pig in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Other rare examples include a painting of a cattle-like beast found on the island of Borneo, which could be 40,000 years old, and a painting of a “pig-deer” in Indonesia, which could be 35,400 years old.

If the researches are right, the stingray-shaped rock “blows the known dates for human representations of animals out of the water,” writes Gizmodo’s Isaac Schultz.

Still, according to the researchers, verifying that the rock actually depicts a stingray may not be possible.

“Firstly, we cannot prove our interpretation, and others cannot falsify it,” they write in the Conversation. “It therefore represents speculation—although it is highly informed speculation based on our understanding of many tens of thousands of such rocks. Secondly, ancient palaeoart is rare in the archaeological record, and may be harder to recognize than more recent art: We really don’t know how much we don’t know.”

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