The 73,000-year-old stone flake was colored with ocher and was found in Blombos Cave in South Africa.
"This notable discovery predates the earliest previously known abstract and figurative drawings by at least 30,000 years", write the authors in the study, alluding to drawings made by early humans in Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia.
The drawing itself was placed on a flake of silcrete, which is a mineral that results from the mixture of sand and gravel, and with ocher being used to create and color the tiny scratches on the flake, the sharp red lines that were left behind by ancient Homo sapiens in South Africa can still be seen today.
While the design appears rudimentary, the fact that it was sketched so long ago is significant, suggesting the existence of modern cognitive abilities in our species, Homo sapiens, during a time known as the Middle Stone Age, the researchers said.
The ancient drawing includes six parallel lines that are crossed by three slightly curved lines, the researchers said.
According to National Geographic, the drawing itself is somewhat understated and can be likened to what nearly looks like a modern-day hashtag.
The researchers, led by Christopher Henshilwood and Francesco d'Errico, both from the University of Bergen in Norway, also engaged in some experimental archaeology, recreating the methods used to create the early drawing.
The discovery of the ochre drawing is exceptional but not unexpected, said Emmanuelle Honoré, a fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge in England, who wasn't involved with the study.
While scientists have found older engravings around the world, research published on Wednesday in the journal Nature says the lines on this stone mark the first abstract drawing.
The silcrete fragment came from a 73,000-year-old archaeological stratum and bears a crosshatched pattern made up of nine fine lines.
So the pattern was probably more complex and structured in its entirety than in this truncated form.
The team first confirmed that the lines were ochre, and conducted a series of experiments to figure out how the drawing was made.
"This demonstrates that early Homo sapiens in the southern Cape used different techniques to produce similar signs on different media", Henshilwood added in the statement. "We are looking at people whose brains were wired in quite similar ways to ours".
The collection of crisscrossed lines was found in the Blombos Cave about 300 kilometres east of Cape Town. "We had pieces of [etched] ochre 75,000 years old, beads covered in ochre in different styles, and engraved bone". For example, a zig-zag pattern etched onto a shell in Trinil Java has been dated to 540,000 years ago (this discovery pre-dates Homo sapiens, so it was likely made by Homo erectus).
The archaeological stratum in which the silcrete flake lay had already yielded many other objects with symbolic markings, including ocher fragments that feature very similar crosshatched engraving.