Neurosciences unlock the secret of the first abstract engravings


Long before Lascaux paintings, humans engraved abstract motifs on stones, shells or egg shells. the earliest are 540,000 years old. For the archaeologists who discovered these objects, the question is whether they are the result of unpurposive behaviour, the simple desire of imitating nature or endowed with meaning. An unprecedented collaboration between archaeologists1 and researchers in cognitive neuroimaging2 from the CNRS, university of Bordeaux and CEA is providing answers to this question for the first time. These prehistoric abstract patterns are processed by the same brain areas that recognize objects. They also activate a region of the left hemisphere that is well known in the processing of written language. The results of this interdisciplinary collaboration reinforce the hypothesis that our ancestors attributed meaning to their tracings, perhaps even symbolic. They are published in Royal Society Open Science on 3 July 2019.

Top: Engraving discovered at the Blombos site (South Africa) dating back 75,000 years before the present. Center: Example of visual categories used in the experiment. Bottom: Lateral and inferior views of brain activations caused by the perception of engravings located in the occipital lobe and the ventral part of the temporal lobe (LH: left hemisphere, RH: right hemisphere, Inf: inferior view). These activations are comparable to those caused by the perception of everyday objects.


  • 1The researchers belong to PACEA (CNRS / Université de Bordeaux / Ministère de la culture)
  • 2The researchers belong to IMN (CNRS / Université de Bordeaux)

Mellet E, Salagnon M, Majkic ́A, Cremona S, Joliot M, Jobard G, Mazoyer B, Tzourio-Mazoyer N, d’Errico F. 2019 Neuroimaging supports the representational nature of the earliest human engravings. Royal Society Open Science.6: 90086.





Francesco d’Errico
Chercheur CNRS en préhistoire et évolution humaine
Emmanuel Mellet
Chercheur CNRS
Maxime Dos Santos
CNRS press officer