African Cave Yields Paint From Dawn of Humanity
By Brian Vastag,
A hundred thousand years ago, not long after Homo
sapiens emerged as a species, a craftsman - or woman -
sat in a cave overlooking the Indian Ocean, crushed a
soft rusty red rock, mixed it inside a shell with
charcoal and animal marrow, and dabbed it on something -
maybe a face, maybe a wall.
Before the person left, he or she stacked the shell and
grindstones in a neat pile, where they lay undisturbed
for a hundred millennia.
Unearthed in 2008 and described Friday in the journal
Science, these paint "toolkits," researchers say, push
deeper into human history evidence for artistic impulses
and complex, planned behavior.
"They probably understood basic chemistry," said
Christopher Henshilwood, the archaeologist who led the
Traces of paint on the tools show that the cave-dwellers
mixed ochre - red or yellow minerals that contain metal
oxides - with marrow from bones, charcoal, flecks of
quartz, and a liquid, likely water. Paint experts at the
Louvre in Paris performed the analysis.
With ground ochre as the base, the marrow and charcoal
acted as binders. The quartz could have made the
compound sticky, while water - in the right amount -
provided the proper consistency.
This deliberate mixture "implies that people at the time
had complex cognition," said Lyn Wadley, an
archaeologist at the University of Witswatersrand in
Johannesburg. Wadley studies early ochre paint but was
not involved in the research. "They could .?.?. multi-
task and think in abstract terms."
The cave, called Blombos, sits in a cliff on the coast
of South Africa about 180 miles east of Cape Town. It
shows signs of human use starting 130,000 years ago.
Protected from wind and rain and close to seafood,
antelope and other game, the cave apparently made for an
inviting stopover for wave after wave of nomadic hunter-
Henshilwood, who splits his time between the University
of Bergen in Norway and the University of
Witswatersrand, began excavating Blombos in1992, digging
through layers of animal bones, crustacean shells and
other evidence of occupation during the Paleolithic, or
But the deepest layer, which the team reached in 2008,
was different. Instead of scattered remains, two tidy
"toolkits" emerged, covered by sand. Both included fist-
sized abalone shells and lay in neat piles.
In one kit, a round stone sat inside the shell. Six
other grinding or pounding stones were arrayed around
the shell and were probably used to smash the ochre. A
small slab - a grinding stone - rested on top of the
assemblage. A shoulder blade from a seal revealed
evidence of heating and marrow extraction, while paint
at the end of a thin forearm bone from a dog or a wolf
showed that it was used to spread the paint, Henshilwood
Ochre comes in colors from mellow yellow to raging red.
Whomever made the ancient paint selected only the
brightest of reds.
"It could've been ornamental," Henshilwood said. Even
today, groups in southern Africa paint their faces and
torsos with ochre to identify which group they belong to
or whether they're married. Ochre paint can also serve
as a sunscreen and an insect repellant.
For whatever reasons the paint was made, early humans
had a fondness for ochre. "Nearly all" South African
sites from the Paleolithic show ochre, and it has been
found at ancient sites in the Middle East and Europe,
too, Henshilwood said. But all of those finds are tens
of thousands of years younger than the Blombos paint
The discovery adds to other early artistic treasures at
Blombos, including 49 beads smeared with ochre and large
pieces of ochre inscribed with cross-hatch patterns that
date to 77,000 years ago - widely recognized as the
oldest known art.
The cave walls show no paintings, but quickly-accreting
limestone would have obscured any obvious signs,
He plans to return with special lights that can detect
traces of ochre paint. If he finds any on the walls, it
would push deeper into the past solid evidence of the
human artistic impulse. The oldest known cave paintings,
in France, are about 35,000 years old.
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