Issue Date: October 17, 2011
Ancient Humans Were Pigment Chemists
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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