Ancient Ostrich Eggshells: Lines, Patterns, Spirits

The Discovery

In 2010, an archaeological team led by Pierre-Jean Texier of the Univeristy of Bordeaux, France, made an incredible find in the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa: 270 ostrich eggshell fragments engraved with geometric designs (pictured, left).  What’s particularly interesting about this find is the date: 60,000 years ago!  Just to put that in perspective, the only earlier design as yet identified, also from a South African cave, is a single cross-hatched block of red ochre, dated to an amazing 80,000 years ago.  The Chauvet Cave art in France, long thought to be the first expression of human art, is dated to 35,000 years ago, and the earliest Egyptian pyramid is a relative new-comer at 5,000 years ago.  So the discovery of the decorated ostrich eggshells means humans (or at least hominids) were making art – specific designs and patterns carefully created and repeated – a very long time ago.

Ostrich eggshells are large (about 4″ in diameter and 6″ in length) and quite strong; very useful, once they’ve been cleaned out, as cups, bowls, or canteens.  Since they can withstand heat, they might also have served as cookware.  Some Bushmen still use ostrich eggshells as canteens, plugging the hole with a mixture of grass and beeswax, and many people still use the shells as cups and bowls.  There’s a thriving craft business in decorated ostrich eggs, both whole and half shells, with designs ranging from elaborate drawings scratched into the shell to simple repeated geometric patterns.  You can browse a wide selection in gift shops through southern Africa.  I brought a decorated half-shell home (photo) in my checked bag, so it must be pretty strong.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the ancient people treasured these versatile eggshells.  What is surprising is the clear sense of design in the fragments that were discovered.  Since the archaeologists had such a large sample to work with (270 fragments), they were able to see the repetition of very similar patterns.  All of the fragments shown in the photo have dots arranged in what seems to be a random scattering, sometimes over the whole fragment, sometimes over only part of it.  The horizontal lines and vertical marks between them are superimposed over the dots.  Althought ostrich eggs are typically off-white, the shell fragments in the find are grey, blue, red, orange, and green, perhaps indicating the use of dyes or pit firing to create different colors the way a potter would.

Some experts have dismissed the decorations as mere doodling, but their theory seems hard to believe.  Why would the ancient people take the time to mark and color these shells so carefully if they meant nothing?  It’s far more likely that they were very important indeed, but because the experts don’t understand the shells’ meaning, they’ve decided the designs are meaningless.

The Khoi-San/ Bushmen

The Khoi-San, more commonly known as the Bushmen, have some of the oldest patterns of mitochondrial DNA on the planet and are considered the oldest living race of humans.  In modern times, they have been persecuted and pushed to the edges of developed areas in South Africa and Botswana, but they once roamed over most of southen and central Africa.  However, according to research published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, the Khoi-San population dropped to only a few thousand individuals about 70,000 years ago, perhaps as the result of a prolonged drought.  Then the tiny bands that managed to survive came together and restarted the human race.  Many experts think this was also the time that modern, complex language developed and many people migrated to new areas, perhaps in search of a kinder enviroment.

It’s that amazing time that leads to these amazing shells.

The Trance Dance

In traditional Khoi-San/Bushmen practice, the trance dancer combines dancing, music, hyperventillation, concentration, and hallucinogenic drugs to reach the trance state.  Here, somewhere between life and death, he (or she) can mediate between the world of spirits and the world of people to try to restore balance.  In some cases, the shaman must fight off sickness or misfortune sent by the angry dead, often spoken of as arrows of harm the dead throw at the victim’s midsection.

According to the “San Religion” entry in Wikipedia, western researchers into the trance dance have attempted to replicate the trance dance experience in the lab by using LSD.  In their findings, the first part of the trance is an altered state of consciousness in which people see geometric shapes, especially zigzags, dots, flecks, and grids, vortexes and U-shapes.  These designs are very common in rock art of South Africa and on the ostrich eggshells.

In the later stages of the trance, subjects see multiple U-shaped figures like honeycombs.  There are many examples of these in Bushmen cave painting, including several with bees carefully painted in.  Finally, the subjects feel as if they are falling down a whirling vortex, seeing monsters and strange animals.  Some feel they’ve become half-animal.  Figure of animal-human hybrids, called theriotropes, are common in Bushmen cave paintings.

It seems possible, then, that the amazing ostrich eggshells are not mindless doodles at all but very purposeful pieces of art that mark a spiritual journey undertaken by many, perhaps a battle against the forces of evil that threated the existence of mankind.