Archaeologists in South Africa recently published their findings of what they believe is a sand sculpture of a stingray in the journal Rock Art Research, which dates back to the Middle Stone Age.

The research team were first notified of the sculpture by a “citizen scientist,” The Conversation reports.

How did archaeologists know it was a stingray?

Archaeologists first noticed the symmetry and groove patterns on the kite-shaped sand sculpture, per the study. Several co-authors of the study wrote in an article for The Conversation that they compared the outline and proportion of the sculpture to a real-life blue stingray, where they found it had a near-perfect shape.

Archaeologists believe that the near-perfect symmetry could mean that the original creator may have traced an actual stingray in the sand, per The Conversation. If so, then archaeologists believe that the stingray traced was most likely an immature female stingray or a male stingray.

The study explains how archaeologists also noticed specific grooves in the sculpture that were symmetrical to each other if one vertically split the sculpture, along with a cross-shaped groove in the middle. According to the team, these grooves reflect features on a live stingray.

The cross shape is located where a stingray’s eyes normally lay, the parallel grooves could reflect the patterns found on a blue stingray’s dorsal fins, and the corners of the sculpture show the location of a stingray’s pectoral and pelvic fins, per the study.

How was the sand sculpture created?

According to The Conversation, the near-perfect shape could only be accomplished by two methods: the creator had an amazing sense for detail or a real stingray was traced in the sand. But it can’t be known for sure which method was used.

What they did know is that the stingray sculpture was missing a tail, but it had not broken off recently. It most likely was broken off during the sculpture creation, according to The Conversation.

Archaeologists explained that the ”sand sculpture may have been created either by removing surrounding sand to an equal depth or by packing new sand onto an existing surface,” according to the study.

Not wanting to take a chunk off the sculpture, the team instead dated the surrounding rocks it was found in using optically stimulated luminescence, per The Conversation. What they found was the sculpture was probably created during the Middle Stone Age almost 130,000 years ago.

Why do cultures create art?

According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “Art can help us understand our history, our culture, our lives, and the experience of others in a manner that cannot be achieved through other means. It can also be a source of inspiration, reflection, and joy.”

Some ancient cultures created art that reflected what they saw in everyday life, such as a 44,000-year-old hunting mural that was found in Indonesia, as Business Insider originally reported. The Conversation details several implications this study has for ancient art history:

  • Creating sand sculptures is a human practice that dates back to the Middle Stone Age.
  • This stingray sculpture would be the oldest known human-made art piece of a creature.
  • Tracing could be the missing stepping stone that leads humans to create cave art.
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