Oldest Wall Painting

A very early example of painting inside a built structure is being reported from Syria.

A Repost

Geometric polychromic painting on the interior of a built wall in a structure occupied by Hunter-Gatherers, about 11,000 years ago, in Syria. [source]

It looks like modern art, but this painting could hardly be older.

Archaeologists discovered the painted pattern of black, white, and red among the ruins of an 11,000-year-old house in northern Syria–making it the oldest wall painting ever discovered.

Researchers uncovered the prehistoric artwork while excavating the dwelling near the Euphrates River some 280 miles (480 kilometers) north of Damascus


When I first saw this report, I thought it was a typical case of European imperialistic archaeology, because of course, there are many many much older paintings on walls in Africa, Australia and Europe. But this is somewhat different, being a painting on a built wall, in a house, as opposed to a wall inside a cave.

Central African Bark Cloth

That’s cool and different. It is noted by the researchers that this painting, on a wall inside a house that is believed to have been lived in by Hunter-Gatherers (this is a pre-agricultural site) is a very unusual looking image, with its geometric patterning and striking use of color.

“There was a purpose in having the painting in what looked like a communal house, but we don’t know it,” French archaeologist and team leader Eric Coqueugniot told the Reuters news service.

Central African Bark Cloth

What struck me, however, when I first saw it is how much the patterning and use of color resembled the designs I’ve seen on Efe Pygmy and Lese bark cloths, made using traditional approaches in the Ituri Forest, Congo. Much (nearly all) of this Central African art is geometric in form, and uses similar colors, in a similar way, as that of the 11,000 year old wall. I quickly assembled a few shots of somewhat typical bark cloths that I found on Google Images, and they show what I mean. I’ve seen better examples, of course. And these images don’t give you the color scheme very well.

My use of Central African Efe and other folks of that area is not meant in any way to imply that the modern Africans are somehow ancient, primitive exemplars to be compared with 11,000 year old sites in Syria. The comparison is valid, but for other reasons.

Yet Another Central African Bark Cloth

The comparison is valid because of cultural continuity. Somewhat before 11,000 years ago, North African foragers moved into what is now the Middle East and likely established the cultures that would later “invent” local agriculture. The Syrian site here is contemporary with early “Natufian” which in turn derives, more or less, from these early North African immigrants. What happened in the Middle East and in adjoining areas of Africa since then is quite a complex history, and the region to which I’m referring above (regarding the bark cloths) is very far away from the Middle East. But, to this day, the languages spoken in the regions are related (all of the same language family) and this has been the case, most likely, for a very long period of time. The language in which the earliest Near Eastern texts are written is also in this family. Indeed, a Pygmy, and Arab and a Hebrew-speaking Jew all use the same exact word when they refer to their mother or their father. (And I don’t mean “words that sound like mamamama … the noises babies make” … I mean the same exact word, like you would never confuse them.) There are other overlaps of course.

So, what I’m saying is this: If there was a black-red-white geometric tradition in, say, Central Germany or ancient Turkey or whatever, archaeologists would point out the similarity between that tradition and this new find, but be cautious about making a real link. Since most archaeologists (other than those of us who have worked in Central Africa) are unaware of the tradition I refer to here, I’m making the point: Interesting similarities, but I’d be careful about making too much of a connection….

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0 thoughts on “Oldest Wall Painting

  1. I thought Sumerian, the earliest written language of the Middle East, is considered a language isolate (not related to any other language as far as anyone knows)?

  2. Erp: Funny you should say that. If the earliest biblical texts are Sumerian, then the modern/western beliefs about the bible (word of god and all that) are utterly bogus, because none of the Sumerian stories (and yes, Sumerian seems to be an isolate) are that much like the bible stories. If, however, the bible is a text derived from earlier documents and not really the received word of god and all that, then some of these stories are certainly in Sumerian, and then yes, as you say!

  3. It looks like someone was experimenting with color and pattern, but now that you mention bark cloth, maybe they were noting down a particularly good design so they could do it again later.

  4. According to The Oracle, the languages of Central African Pygmies belong mostly to the Nilo-Saharan family (Masai, Nubians, etc.), rather than the Afro-Asiatic family (Egyptian, Berber, Arab, etc.). Apparently they’re not related.

    “Mother” is quite different in Hebrew (“Ima”) and Arabic (“Umm”). OTOH “father” is “baba” both in Turkish and Mandarin… Tricky words, these are.

  5. Okay, this might be tmi, but I have long kept a spreadsheet of my cycle. Not only have I struggled with things like ovarian cysts, but I’m currently going through menopause. I use color to denote different things like ovulation and heaviness of flow instead of text so the entire year can be seen at once. This kind of looks like my spreadsheet.

    I mean, I’m sure that’s probably not what it is, but . . well, it’s just interesting.

  6. Why does there always have to be some nebulous “deeper meaning” behind everything? We’re not sure of what the pattern means? There was a purpose to the pattern? Really? Is it just beyond the bounds of imagination that it means somebody looked up one day and said “Ugh…that wall…”

  7. This is good piece to put in your wall. Abstract art uses a visual language of form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world. The sources from which individual artists drew their theoretical arguments were diverse, and reflected the social and intellectual preoccupations in all areas of Western culture at that time.

  8. Wow! whoever discovered this must be credited for its work. Its a very historical artifact, i think it is also related from how people lived back onto those days when all they have is a tablet of rock and some fruits which they use as their paint.

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