241,000 to 335,000 Years Old Rock Engravings Made by Homo naledi in the Rising Star Cave system, South Africa


The production of painted, etched or engraved designs on cave walls or other surfaces is recognized as a major cognitive step in human evolution. Such intentional designs, which are widely interpreted as signifying, recording, and transmitting information in a durable manner were once considered exclusive to Late Pleistocene Homo sapiens. Recent work has demonstrated that other hominin groups also made such marks, including Neanderthals (Rodríguez-Vidal et al., 2014; Hoffmann et al., 2018), and possibly Middle-Pleistocene Homo erectus (Joordens et al., 2015). Such durable signs indicate an intentionality characteristic of meaning-making (Kissel and Fuentes 2018) which has been argued to require significant levels of cognitive abilities not found in species with smaller brain sizes (Parkington, 2010). In fact, the evolution of such meaning-making symbols is thought to be a core aspect of what it means to be “human” (Henshilwood, 2009). Here we present the first known example of abstract patterns and shapes engraved within the Dinaledi subsystem of the Rising Star Cave in South Africa. We identified markings incised into the dolomitic limestone walls of the cave. The engravings described here are deeply impressed cross-hatchings and other geometric shapes. The surfaces bearing these engravings appear to have been prepared and smoothed. In some areas there is residue that creates a sheen on the surface possibly indicating repeated handling or rubbing of the rock, and there is evidence of the application of dirt or sand to the surface by non-natural processes. Homo naledi entered this part of the cave system and buried bodies within the both the Dinaledi Chamber and adjacent Hill Antechamber between 241 and 335 ka (Dirks et al., 2017; Robbins et al., 2021, Berger et al, 2023a). The engravings described here are found on a pillar in the Hill Antechamber that extends into the natural fissure corridor that links the two chambers and we associate them with H. naledi.

Competing Interest Statement

The authors have declared no competing interest.

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