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Prehistoric “art workshop” surprises scientists

Oct. 13, 2011
Courtesy of Science, University of the Witwatersrand
and World Science staff

An ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site dis­cov­ered three years ago was ap­par­ent­ly a work­shop in which ear­ly hu­mans made, mixed and stored ochre, the ear­li­est form of paint, re­search­ers are re­port­ing.

The cave site—lit­tered with ham­mers and grind­stones for mak­ing ochre pow­der, and con­tain­ing two sea snail shells that once housed an ochre mix­ture—is about 100,000 years old, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists.

Ab­a­lo­ne shells con­tain­ing residues of ochre, from Blom­bos Cave in Cape Town, South Af­ri­ca. (Cred­it: Chris Hen­shilwood, U. of Wit­wa­ters­rand)


The use of ochre, which is basi­cally just col­or­ful dirt, has been well-doc­u­ment­ed af­ter about 60,000 years ago. But the new find­ings show that peo­ple were us­ing ochre much ear­li­er, and al­so pro­duc­ing and stor­ing it, say the re­search­ers, Chris­to­pher Hen­shil­wood of the Uni­vers­ity of the Wit­wa­ters­rand, Jo­han­nes­burg, and col­leagues.

The con­cep­tu­al abil­ity to com­bine and store such sub­stances rep­re­sents a crit­i­cal point in the ev­o­lu­tion of hu­man think­ing—com­bin­ing an abil­ity for sym­bol­ic com­mu­nica­t­ion with long-term plan­ning and even an el­e­men­ta­ry chem­is­try knowl­edge, ac­cord­ing to the in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

The site was dis­cov­ered in Blom­bos Cave at Cape Town, South Af­ri­ca in 2008. Among its con­tents were two ab­a­lo­ne, or sea snail, shells once used to store a red, ochre-rich mix­ture mixed with bone and char­coal, Hen­shil­wood and col­leagues said. There’s no im­me­di­ate way of tell­ing what the ochre was used for, but the re­search­ers sug­gest that early Ho­mo sapi­ens might have paint­ed their bod­ies or made sim­ple art­works with it.

“Ochre may have been ap­plied with sym­bol­ic in­tent as de­cor­a­t­ion on bod­ies and cloth­ing dur­ing the Mid­dle Stone Age,” said Hen­shil­wood. The grind­ing and scrap­ing of ochre to pro­duce a pow­der for use as a pig­ment be­came a com­mon prac­tice in Af­ri­ca and the Near East, he added.

The find­ings are to be pub­lished in the Oct. 14 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence. The shells will be on dis­play at the Iziko Mu­se­um in Cape Town, South Af­ri­ca start­ing Oct. 14.


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An archaeo logical site discovered three years ago apparent ly was a workshop used by ear ly humans to make, mix and store ochre, the earliest form of paint, researchers are reporting. The cave site—littered with hammers and grindstones for making ochre powder, and containing two sea snail shells that once housed an ochre mixture—is about 100,000 years old, according to scientists. The use of ochre, which was essential ly just colorful dirt, has been well-documented after about 60,000 years ago. But the new findings show that people were using ochre much earlier, and also producing and storing it, say the researchers, Christopher Henshilwood of the Un ivers ity of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and colleagues. The conceptual abil ity to combine and store such substances represents a critical point in the evolution of human thinking—combining an abil ity for symbolic communic ation with long-term planning and even an elementary chemistry knowledge, according to the invest igators. The site was discovered in South Africa’s Blombos Cave in 2008. Among its contents were two abalone, or sea snail, shells once used to store a red, ochre-rich mixture mixed with bone and charcoal, Henshilwood and colleagues said. There’s no immediate way of telling what the ochre was used for, but the reearchers suggest that these ear ly Homo sapiens might have painted their bodies or designed simple works art works with it. “Ochre may have been applied with symbolic intent as decor ation on bodies and clothing during the Middle Stone Age,” said Henshilwood. The grinding and scraping of ochre to produce a powder for use as a pigment became a common practice in Africa and the Near East, he added. The findings are to be published in the Oct. 14 issue of the research journal Science. The shells will be on display at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, South Africa starting Oct. 14.