Ancient artists

October 13, 2011 • 4:33 pm

by Greg Mayer

A paper to be published tomorrow in Science by C.S. Henshilwood and colleagues reports the discovery of a 100,000 year old paint-making shop in a cave in South Africa. They found two abalone shells which had held a mixture of red ochre, animal marrow, and other ingredients, alongside stones and bones apparently used in mixing and perhaps applying the reddish paint.

One of the abalone shells, placed on a rock. From AAAS/Science, via NY Times.

Ochre has long been known to have been used by early man, and ocher associated with human occupation goes back hundreds of thousands of years. The current find demonstrates a very skilled and deliberate use of the pigment to produce a coloring agent. While carved art is much older, cave painting (such as at the famed caves of Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France) dates back only to about 30,000 years ago. It’s not known if the paint was used for painting objects (like walls) or the human body. New York Times coverage here; BBC coverage here.


Bahn, P.G. and J. Vertut. 1997. Journey Through the Ice Age. Seven Dials, London.

Henshilwood, C.S., F. d’Errico,  K.L. van Niekerk, Y. Coquinot, Z. Jacobs, S.-E. Lauritzen, M. Menu and R. García-Moreno. 2011. A 100,000-year-old ochre-processing workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Science 334:219-222. (abstract)

16 thoughts on “Ancient artists

  1. It has always seemed probable to me that the first artistic canvas was the human body. You’ve always got one there and everyone loves to decorate it. You don’t even need ochre, just mud will do.

      1. Marrow is fat IIRC, so it would be a coloring agent fit for hides as well as straw, bark, roots or whatever plant based stuff was used for clothing along with hides. Perhaps better on the latter, I don’t know how easy it is to get coloring agents absorbed into hides.

        Hides would presume large scale hunting, and I think a lot of experience in preparing them. Wonder when those two practices developed, if at all?

      2. Wiikipedia pegs the first substantiated examples of hunting to the development of bows ~ 18 ka bp, later supplemented with spears ~ 16 ka bp. Seems you have to push hunting way back, before it can be said to have been socially significant at ~ 100 ka bp.*

        Clothing seem to go back at least ~ 36 ka bp. (Flax, not hides; and dyed btw!) [Wp]

        We have the evolution of body lice ~ 100 ka bp though. Presumably but not certainly modern man had lost its hair by then. (Say, from sexual selection.) Or do we know when the genes responsible for sparse hair evolved?

        Loss of hair would indicate an incentive for development of clothes sooner or later. (Well, duh.)

        * I am assuming finding dead animals won’t make enough of quality hides for clothing. I may easily be wrong about that.

        1. Persistence hunting, as still practiced until recently by the !Kung in the Kalahari, also possibly by the Tarahumara in Norther Mexico, is probably one of the oldest methods of hunting, feasible long before the development of projectiles.

          Also, the conservation probability of organic materials is dismal compared to stone implements. Wooden spears, maces, or bows and arrows may have existed long before any substantiated exemplars known today, and still have disappeared without a trace.

          1. I would think driving game with fire etc or stampeding them into ravines or rivers would have been used on occasions, though perhaps they were not as stupid as to destroy a future larder on the hoof?

            1. Like Solutré, you mean?
              A misinterpretation of the site, in all probability. A canard, if a legendary one.
              That is an argument based on archaeological evidence.

              The hominid stupidity conjecture, however, cannot be dismissed: ample evidence from all ages supports the view that human idiocy has no natural limits.

        2. “Presumably but not certainly modern man had lost its hair by then” – I had. I miss those good old days when we would share a mammoth steak around the camp fire & discuss the latest art show as Lascaux! 😉

  2. I’m beginning to side with those who contend that the “Great Leap Forward” wasn’t really. It was just a continuation of something that had been building for an almost unimaginable length of time.

  3. You can’t explain that! Deposited there by Noah’s Ark … ? Maybe Mrs. Noah’s makeup fell over the side.

  4. It’s intriguing to think of a Great Leap – a la 2001: A Space Odyssey – but I’m with Nom.

    Slightly on topic, I read a very interesting article in New Scientist a few months ago (unsure if the magazine was current at the time) dealing with various glyphs found regularly among Neolithic sites, giving rise to the idea that written language may be a great deal older than we think.

    Thanks, Prof Coyne – always nice to see glimpses of our ancestors’ lives.

    1. + me. I am sure there would be some sudden ‘bursts’ of activity as innovations spread to other human groups, but if the numbers of humans were comparatively low & they were fairly narrowly distributed that would not have taken long, would it? Say the invention of the needle enabling eventually the development of clothes so humans could spread north & survive winter conditions.

  5. “They found two abalone shells which had held a mixture of red ocher, animal marrow, and other ingredients, alongside stones and bones apparently used in mixing and perhaps applying the reddish paint.”
    Alternatively this could be the first evidence of tool use by artistic molluscs!

  6. The essential feat here is the dating. If I understand correctly (still awaiting access to the full text paper), Optically Stimulated Luminiscence (OSL), as ages beyond 40ky are beyond the range of radiocarbon. Error about 10%. Still, it’s a feat. Good stratigraphy by all accounts. For some years now, Blombos cave has been Ali Baba’s cave for archaeologists.

    Chris Stringer of London Nat Hist Mus comments on BBC: “People were starting to express social identity in completely new ways. And there is a view that this behaviour is linked with complex language. So, it may indicate these people were communicating in a fully modern way.” Purely speculative, of course, but plausible, and for that I like a date of 100ky ago a lot better than shorter chronologies. It allows for a much better fit of linguistic development with what we see in the archaeological material.

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