Thursday, July 2, 2015

Is Casein the Oldest Paint?

Residue of a milk-based ochre paint has been found on the edge a 49,000-year-old stone tool, Archaeology magazine reports today. This finding in the Sibudu cave of southwestern South Africa would make casein—paint that uses a milk-based binder—perhaps the oldest paint formulation of all. 

stone age paint-making workshop found in the nearby Blombos cave included stone and bone pestles for grinding the pigments. There was also an abalone shell caked with orange and red pigments used for mixing or storing colors.

Researchers say the milk ingredient was identified by "several high-tech chemical and elemental analyses" and that it may have come from a bovid such as a buffalo, eland, kudu or impala—presumably a wild-killed lactating female—since cattle were not domesticated until 1,000-2,000 years ago. I'm not sure how they ruled out human milk, which would be a lot easier to obtain, and would be available throughout the year. 

Pigments mixed with fat also date back to the Middle Stone Age archaeological record, and their use was probably similar to the body paint used in Africa today. The oldest known paintings are the 40,000 year old stenciled handprints in the Maros cave system in the Sulawesi island chain of Indonesia.

What other paint binders were used by Paleolithic cultures? Archaeologists have found evidence of "vegetable oils, egg whites, yucca juice, yucca syrup, white bean meal, piñon gum, plant fluids, saliva, blood, and even urine." In the Lascaux caves, the dissolved limestone in the water may have provided the ingredient to stick the paint together, since it dries to a hard calcite layer.

Whether the Sibudu casein paint was used to decorate the body, a cave wall, or some portable object is not known.
Press release. Photos courtesy Archaeology Magazine (Thanks, Greg Shea and RobNonStop)
Materials of Ancestral Art
New review of Gouache in the Wild from "Thick Paint" author Brad Teare: "Gouache in the Wild simultaneously respects traditional techniques while infusing them with a spirit of invention."


Glenn Tait said...

You mention in the "Gouache in the Wild" video that "designers gouache" is an inferior quality of paint. However Winsor Newton uses this to describe their product. Would you put the WN gouache in this same category?

James Gurney said...

Glenn, traditionally, "designers" gouache has differed from "artists" gouache because it tends to use multiple pigments, non-lightfast pigments, and whiteners if necessary to achieve a certain saturated hue of a certain value. Because illustrators and designers didn't expect their work to be permanent, there were no worries about lightfastness. Most manufacturers of gouache these days, even of so-called designers gouache, will say they only use whiteners when necessary, because whitened formulations can get that chalky look in thin mixtures. You can add whiteners but you can't take them out. But all that said, the traditional designer's gouache can have a purity of tint when used thickly that's unmatched by any other paint. It's not a glazing medium, though--it's a very direct medium where you need to hit the note right first time.

Nick J. said...

Interesting post, thank you. But---re the idea cattle were domesticated only 1,000 - 2,000 years ago---surely the Romans and Greeks and contemporaries were engaged in widespread dairy farming, even if perhaps not yet living off $3 hamburgers. I believe the domestication of cattle happens in China closer to 10,000 years ago...still sufficiently recently to support your larger claim!

James Gurney said...

Nicholas, good point. And sheep and dogs were domesticated in the Near East around 10,000 years ago. I think they mean that bovids were domesticated in South Africa 1,000-2,000 ago. I like to think they domesticated them for paint-making. "These are my two elands, "Winsor and Newton."

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Elizabeth said...

Human milk has a different fat/protein structure than cow milk. Human milk produces a much tinier curd in the acid of a baby's stomach than cow milk would. Perhaps for that reason, it was necessary to use cow's milk.