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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).
© d'Errico/Pedersen/Henshilwood

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 oxides.   

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).

2 - Laboratory of the Center for Research and Restoration of the museums of France (CNRS/Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication).

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, respectively.

4 - Haematite: iron oxide with chemical formula: Fe2O3; Goethite: hydrated iron oxide with chemical formula: FeO2H.


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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