100,000-year-old ochre toolkit and workshop discovered in South Africa

Oct 13, 2011
An ochre-rich mixture, possibly used for decoration, painting and skin protection 100,000 years ago, and stored in two abalone shells, was discovered at Blombos Cave in Cape Town, South Africa. Credit: Prof. Christopher Henshilwood, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

An ochre-rich mixture, possibly used for decoration, painting and skin protection 100,000 years ago, and stored in two abalone shells, was discovered at Blombos Cave in Cape Town, South Africa.

"Ochre may have been applied with symbolic intent as decoration on bodies and clothing during the Middle Stone Age," says Professor Christopher Henshilwood from the Institute for at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, who together with his international team discovered a processing workshop in 2008 where a liquefied ochre-rich mixture was produced.

The findings will be published in the journal Science tomorrow.

The two coeval, spatially associated toolkits were discovered in situ (not been moved from its original place of deposition) and the kits included ochre, bone, charcoal, and hammerstones. The grinding and scraping of ochre to produce a powder for use as a pigment was common practice in Africa and the Near East only after about 100,000 years ago.

"This discovery represents an important benchmark in the evolution of complex () 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," explains Henshilwood.

An ochre-rich mixture, possibly used for decoration, painting and skin protection 100,000 years ago, and stored in two abalone shells, was discovered at Blombos Cave in Cape Town, South Africa. Credit: Prof. Chris Henshilwood, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

"We believe that the manufacturing process involved the rubbing of pieces of ochre on quartzite slabs to produce a fine red powder. Ochre chips were crushed with quartz, quartzite and silcrete hammerstones/grinders and combined with heated crushed, mammal-bone, charcoal, stone chips and a liquid, which was then introduced to the abalone shells and gently stirred. A bone was probably used to stir the mixture and to transfer some of the mixture out of the shell."

The quartz sediments in which the ochre containers were buried were dated to about 100,000 years using Optically Stimulated (OSL) dating. This is consistent with the thermoluminescence dating of burnt lithics and the dating of calcium carbonate concretions using uranium-series dating methods.

"The recovery of these toolkits adds evidence for early technological and behavioural developments associated with humans and documents their deliberate planning, production and curation of pigmented compound and the use of containers. It also demonstrates that humans had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning 100,000 years ago," concludes Henshilwood.

The two specimens will be on display at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town from Friday, 14 October 2011.

Explore further: Unique entry complex discovered at Herodian Hilltop Palace

Provided by University of the Witwatersrand

5 /5 (7 votes)

Related Stories

Age of earliest human burial in Britain pinpointed

Oct 30, 2007

The oldest known buried remains in Britain are 29,000 years old, archaeologists have found – 4,000 years older than previously thought. The findings show that ceremonial burials were taking place in western ...

Tiny ancient shells point to earliest fashion trend

Aug 27, 2009

Shell beads newly unearthed from four sites in Morocco confirm early humans were consistently wearing and potentially trading symbolic jewellery as early as 80,000 years ago. These beads add significantly to similar finds ...

Recommended for you

Ancient clay seals may shed light on biblical era

Dec 20, 2014

Impressions from ancient clay seals found at a small site in Israel east of Gaza are signs of government in an area thought to be entirely rural during the 10th century B.C., says Mississippi State University archaeologist ...

Digging up the 'Spanish Vikings'

Dec 19, 2014

The fearsome reputation of the Vikings has made them the subject of countless exhibitions, books and films - however, surprisingly little is known about their more southerly exploits in Spain.

Short-necked Triassic marine reptile discovered in China

Dec 17, 2014

A new species of short-necked marine reptile from the Triassic period has been discovered in China, according to a study published December 17, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xiao-hong Chen f ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Ojorf
1 / 5 (1) Oct 14, 2011
"This discovery represents an important benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition (mental processes) 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,"
Since we have that ability now, and we have been around for more than 100,000 years, I don't find this surprising. Verrry cool nonetheless.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.