The ancient art studio

What they found could have been a prehistoric make up palette, left by an ancient beautician 100000 years ago.
Scientists aren’t too sure what the contents of the two abalone shells were used for, but what they do know is that this is the oldest paint recipe ever discovered and the first evidence of humans using containers. This is what they reveal in an article that appeared in the journal of Science today.
The shells and a “toolkit,” that consisted of ochre, bone, charcoal, grinding stones and hammer stones were found in 2008, in the Blombos Cave in the Western Cape, in South Africa. This is the same cave, situated about 300 km east of Cape Town where archaeologists in 2002 discovered what was then the earliest examples of art etched on a piece of ochre.
“We don’t know what they were doing with it,” said Dr Karen van Niekerk, of the Institute for Archaeology, History, Culture and Religion at the University of Bergen. “But one thing we do know was that they were making a complex mixture.”
The scientists believe that the manufacturing process involved rubbing pieces of ochre on quartzite slabs to produce a fine powder. A seal bone, that was discovered at the site, probably when heated added fat and marrow to the mixture and acted as a binder. Charcoal, quartzite and liquid were also added to mix.
Microscopic scratch marks at the bottom of the shell, shows that the mixture was gently stirred.
What came out of those shells was paint and what it was used for no one knows. It might have been for skin decoration, or for cave painting. But it is the process of making the paint that has the authors of the paper excited.
“This would have required excellent planning,” explained Professor Chris Henshilwood, of Wits University, to The Star newspaper yesterday. “First they would have had to gather the ochre, and the quartz. Then hunted the seal, then they would have needed a mental template of what they were going to do with these ingredients. They would have needed the recipe in their head.”
It is us being human, 100000 years ago. Anatomically humans became humans about 200000 years ago said Henshilwood. A hundred millennia later our minds had become wired and ready for modern living.
“This discovery represents an important benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition in that it shows that humans had the conceptual ability to source, combine and store substances that were then possibly used to enhance their social practices,” he explained.

Blombos cave, which has been inhabited on and off over the last 160000 years. Picture by Magnus Haaland

About Shaun Smillie

Journalist, with a love of bones, fossils and other things dug up. Fisherman and occasional beer maker.
This entry was posted in human evolution and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The ancient art studio

  1. Pingback: Why Body Painting? — 3: Origins — Touching Ancient Sources « the story behind the faces

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