Ancient Humans Were Pigment Chemists | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 42 | p. 55 | Concentrates
Issue Date: October 17, 2011

Ancient Humans Were Pigment Chemists

Archaeological findings at a cave workshop in South Africa reveal ochre processing as early as 100,000 years ago
Department: Science & Technology
Keywords: pigments, ochre, archeology, chemical history
Paleolithic “chemists” used this abalone shell to store paints made from ochre.
Credit: Science
Abalone shell from 100,000 pigment workshop cave.
Paleolithic “chemists” used this abalone shell to store paints made from ochre.
Credit: Science

Bright yellow and red iron oxides known as ochre found in deposits on Earth have long been used as pigments—for example, by early humans to paint their bodies and other objects. Now, archaeologists have discovered a 100,000-year-old ochre-processing workshop in a South African coastal cave, the oldest such site, by 40,000 years, found to date (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1211535). Discoveries at the cave document early humanity’s “deliberate planning, production, and curation of a pigmented compound and the use of containers,” notes the research team led by Christopher S. Henshilwood of the University of Bergen, in Norway. “Homo sapiens [of that era] thus also had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning,” the researchers conclude. The team uncovered evidence that these early humans ground the ochre from rock and heated bones to extract fat and marrow that were then used as a binder for the pigments. Charcoal was also sometimes added to the mixture. The ancient paint was then placed in sealed abalone shells for storage.

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