Thursday, October 20, 2011

100,000 year old paint pot

Archaeologists have discovered a 100,000 year old abalone shell in South Africa with an ochre grindstone and a coating of bright red powder that may be the earliest known art studio.

 According to one of the study's authors, Christopher Henshilwood, the paint would have been made from a combination of a reddish iron oxide pigment, quartzite chips, crushed seal bone, charcoal, and a liquid, such as water. The site also contained grindstones, hammerstones, and a fire pit.


"They seemed to know that seal bone is really rich in oil and fat, which is a critical component in making a paint-like substance," Henshilwood said.
"They also knew to add charcoal to the mixture to bind and stabilize it, and a little bit of fluid, which could have been water or seawater or urine."
While relatively few ingredients were used in the ancient paint, each item had to be individually prepared before everything could be combined inside the shells. For example, the ochre pieces had to be crushed and ground into a powder, the bones had to be heated to release their oils and then crushed, and wood had to be burned to create charcoal.
"The mixture was very gently stirred, and you can see the traces of the stirring [done by fingers] on the bottom surface of the abalone shell," Henshilwood said.
It's not clear what the ochre paint was later used for, but Henshilwood said it's easy to imagine early humans using the substance to decorate their bodies or cave walls.


 The article was published in Science magazine. Excerpt from National Geographic News
Photo from Science / AAAS

10 comments:

Rubysboy said...

What's most startling about this finding is that 100,000 years is usually given as the best estimate of when language developed, tens of thousands of years before agriculture. So the earliest hunter gatherers, thought to have made only stone tools, were manufacturing paint! (Or maybe language and complex technologies developed much earlier than conventionally estimated.) In either event homo sapiens has been manufacturing a lot longer than experts thought.

Stephen Southerland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen Southerland said...

“When novelists and educationists and psychologists of all sorts talk about the cave-man, they never conceive him in connection with anything that is really in the cave. When the realist of the sex novel writes, 'Red sparks danced in Dagmar Doubledick's brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him,' the novelist's readers would be very much disappointed if Dagmar only went off and drew large pictures of cows on the drawing-room wall. When the psycho-analyst writes to a patient, 'The submerged instincts of the cave-man are doubtless prompting you to gratify a violent impulse,' he does not refer to the impulse to paint in water-colours; or to make conscientious studies of how cattle swing their heads when they graze." -G.K. Chesterton, from "The Everlasting Man"

James Gurney said...

Yes, we make too much of caves, and ,for that matter, bones and rocks, because they are the only things that posterity has bequeathed us. One wonders how these people worked with leaves or bark, how they sang, or whether they drew with sticks in the sand. All of that is dust in the wind.

towncat said...

What a beautiful discovery. It is a pity that most scientists cannot evaluate the evidence for what it really tells us about early man, namely that he was as intelligent as he is now, just not as experienced. Too bad they are blinded to the wonderful histories these artifacts tell by their evolutionary bias. I look forward to the day they find this artist's sketchbook!

Roberto said...

I’m going out on a limb here, but these artifacts demonstrate a far too advanced technology for our caveman ancestors. They were obviously left behind by aliens, and judging by the reddish colored pigments, probably Martians. –RQ
p.s.- My wife wants to know why they are assumed to be used by cavemen, when it’s obvious to her that they were used by cavewomen (far too much work for the men). While the hunters were down at the watering hole sharpening their spears and telling each other lies, the gatherers were doing the grinding and chopping and cooking up of the paint pots for the body-painting ceremony. (I think she has a very vivid imagination.)

James Gurney said...

Roberto, your wife is probably right: change that from "paint pot" to "make-up kit."

Albert. S said...

If you look real close towards the center you can see in small font the words, "Dick Blick". Just kidding...I couldn't help it.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks for this lovely post, James. Like you, I found this discovery very inspirational. When we think about what our ancestors had to do just to survive from one hour to the next, the fact that they still found the time and motivation to make art puts all of our petty little excuses to shame. Not getting paid enough? Struggling with an obsolete version of Photoshop? Try risking your life by walking a mile into a dark cave populated with wild beasts until you come to a sacred spot and there, using only the light from a flickering torch, expressing your beauty on a cave wall using pigment from dirt, combined with the bones of the seal you slaughtered.

aisha said...

Isuzu F-Series Turbo
Fascinating work.
It has been delightful
to visit your gallery.
Good Creations