Blombos (Afrique du Sud) : 100,000-Year-Old Paint Kits Unearthed

100,000-Year-Old Paint Kits Unearthed in South Africa

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A recent Archaeological discovery is changing the way people look at art or painting. Researchers have unearthed ancient painting kits in a South African cave, which was used 100,000 years ago in order to make, mix and also to stock up ochre.


 (Photo: Science/AAAS)
Archaeologists in South Africa uncovered two 100,000-year-old abalone shells and assorted bones and stones that served a toolkits to make some sort of ochre-based compound. The mixture may have been used as a paint or adhesive. It's the oldest evidence of humans making a complex compound, and even the oldest evidence of humans using containers.

As ochre is known to repel mosquitoes and other insects, early Homo sapiens could have possibly used the paint to decorate skin or clothing or to protect the skin, the researchers say.

Researchers suspect that a group of Homo sapiens in Blombos, South Africa, had 'painted' in a scenic cave by mixing iron-rich dirt with heated bone. The mixture was prepared in abalone shells for a resulting red paint.

The steps involved in creating the ochre paint included breaking up the pigment into powder, heating the bone before crushing and adding it to the mix and putting the paint into the shells where it was gently stirred, according to a Sciencemag report.

There was also part of the forearm bone, possibly of a wolf or fox in one of the shells, which researchers believe might have been used to mix the paint or remove it out of the shell.

The ability to mix and store substances like ochre represented a critical point in the evolution of human thinking. The discovery revealed aspects of modern behavior, for instance, advance planning and "an elementary knowledge of chemistry," said the researchers.

South Africa boasts several wonderfully diverse caves that range from enormous underground arenas and rock-strewn zigzag channels. There are also world heritage sites like the Sterkfontein, Cango Caves and Cradle of Humankind. These sites are abundant with fossils.

Earlier, it was thought that the known art, which dated as 77,000 years old, comes from the site of Blombos in South Africa, an area located some 300 kilometers east of Cape Town.

But now, Professor Christopher Henshilwood from the University of Bergen in Norway and University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and his international team of colleagues have unearthed even older signs of ochre that were used at Blombos and other sites as old as 165,000 years.

"To me, it's an important indicator of how technologically advanced people were 100,000 years ago," Henshilwood said. "If this was a paint, it also indicates the likelihood that people were using substances in a symbolic way 100,000 years ago."

"They must have had an elementary knowledge of chemistry. And they also had a recipe for this compound or this paint," he added.

The researchers found a cave that was littered with hammers and grindstones for making ochre powder. The findings also include two abalone shells that had once been used to store a red, ochre-rich mixture that was combined with bone and charcoal.

In the study, Henshilwood and his team said that the two ochre-processing "toolkits" were found only 16 centimeters apart in the same layer. The abalone shells consisted of chunks of ochre-stained quartzite rock that looked like it was used to grind the mixture. The findings of the study appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of the journal Science.

"The findings at the Blombos Cave showed the cognitive skills of ancient humans in Africa before they left for Asia around 60,000 to 80,000 years ago," Henshilwood said.

Archaeologist Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in South Africa called the new discoveries "astonishing" and "extraordinary." The shells are the proofs that early Homo sapiens could "multitask and think in abstract terms about the qualities of the ingredients that they manipulated," Wadley said.