By Culturekiosque Staff
PARIS, 2 NOVEMBER 2011 How did prehistoric men make their
pigments? For the first time, an international collaboration involving
CNRS scientists, the Université de Bordeaux I (1), and the Centre de
Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France (2), provides
information on the recipes and techniques developed by prehistoric
artisans 100,000 years ago or 60,000 years prior to the paintings of the
Chauvet Cave. Piecing together this information was made possible through
the analysis of painting remains preserved in large shells and on tools
dated to 100,000 years ago, discovered at Blombos Cave in South Africa.
These findings constitute the oldest historical evidence of pigment
manufacturing and preservation and unravel the behavioral complexity and
planning abilities, yet unsuspected, of prehistoric mankind. This work was
published in the journal Science on 14 October.
Red, yellow and black ochre, most often made up of iron oxides, was
used by prehistoric men in Africa and Europe for at least 200,000 years.
However, the techniques used to prepare and store it prior to the Upper
Paleolithic (40,000-10,000 years) had remained unknown so far. In 2008,
two sets of tools and ochre fragments were recovered from Blombos Cave (3)
in South Africa, at levels dated to 100,000 years ago. The first "toolkit"
consisted of a large shell, more specifically an abalone shell, covered in
a 5 mm-thick layer of red ochre and containing a used fragment of pigment
and a quartzite flake (rock made of quartz crystals). The content of this
shell was preserved by a pebble showing percussion marks. The "kit" also
included a quartzite slab and quartz flakes showing pigment residues and
traces of use as grinders or crushers. An elongated bone, probably used to
mix or apply the pigment, the shoulder blade of a seal and a herbivore's
vertebra completed the set. The second "toolkit" consisted of an abalone,
with a layer of pigment inside. It also contained a small block of
ochre-stained quartzite, as well as a fragment of red mineral showing
traces of abrasion and cuts.
An abalone shell of the Haliotis midae species
and a pebble protecting its content as they were unearthed from a
100,000-year-old archeological layer at Blombos Cave (South Africa)
(left); shell after the analysis of pigment remains (right).
By thoroughly examining the fragments of ochre and the residues present
on the unearthed tools and shells, the researchers have been able to
reproduce the recipes developed by prehistoric men to make their pigments.
In particular, they evidenced the deliberate use of three types of rocks
containing high quantities of haematite and goethite (4), two of the most
common iron oxides. By either breaking and crushing these rocks or
abrading them using quartzite grinders, the artists of the time produced a
pigment powder. The discovery of spongy bone fragments suggests that bone
marrow was used as a binding agent. In addition, the presence of a
circular trace formed after drying the pigments on the surface of the
best-preserved shell indicates that the mixture was liquid. Finally, the
shells were used several times to mix and store pigments.
This workshop is the oldest evidence of the production and preservation
of coloring agents. Its discovery brings a substantial contribution to
current knowledge in this field. The complexity of the techniques used
implies cognitive abilities to plan and perform complex tasks, such as
combining raw materials of various types and origins, using fire to
facilitate the extraction of bone marrow - and shells as containers or
palettes. As far back as 100,000 years ago, artists already had expertise
on the coloring properties of various minerals, especially iron
What was the purpose of these coloring pastes ? The absence of resin,
gum or wax seems to rule out their use as adhesives for hafting tools.
They more likely served for the coloring of materials (rock, skin, human
body), their preservation and/or protection (tanning of skins, body
protection against sunlight), for the creation of abstract or figurative
paintings, or as medicines and food supplements.
1 - From prehistory to the present: culture,
environment and anthropology' unit (CNRS/Université Bordeaux 1/Ministère
de la Culture et de la Communication). This work has been supported by a
grant from the European Research Council (ERC).
- Laboratory of the Center for Research and Restoration of the museums of
France (CNRS/Ministère de la Culture et de la
3 - This archeological site was
known for the discovery of some of the world's oldest abstract prints and
shell ornaments dated to 90,000-75,000 and 75,000 years ago,
4 - Haematite: iron oxide with
chemical formula: Fe2O3; Goethite: hydrated iron oxide with chemical
A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South
Africa. Christopher S. Henshilwood, Francesco d'Errico, Karen L. van
Niekerk, Yvan Coquinot, Zenobia Jacobs, Stein-Erik Lauritzen, Michel Menu,
Renata García-Moreno. Science. October 13, 2011.
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