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Ochre Pigments in the Stone Age

Use of hematite & goethite
During the Paleolithic era

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Red ochre pigment, used during the Middle and Lower Paleolithic for cave paintings and decorations
Fragment of red ochre pigment. Image by Museo Egizio. (CC BY 2.5)

What is Ochre?

In Stone Age culture, "ochre" is a term used by archaeologists to describe a family of natural clay earth pigments, which are rich in iron.

It is commonly associated with the mineral known as hematite (red ochre), but the ochre family also includes iron-oxides that yield different colours.

They include: limonite (a yellow ochre), goethite (a brown ochre), and specularite (purple ochre).

These pigments typically exist as lumps or nodules within archaeological layers, or as powder clinging to rocks.

The earliest use of ochre pigment by early humans, known to archaeology, dates to the Acheulean culture of the Lower Paleolithic, about 500,000 BC.

Although ochre has many functional uses (e.g. as a sunscreen and mosquito repellent), it is seen as an important indicator of cognitive development during the late Stone Age, and the consequent emergence of modern human behaviour.

In any event, red ochre was a very important pigment in the typical Stone Age colour palette, and was widely used in cave painting around the world, from Siberia to Patagonia.

When was Ochre First Used?

See also: World's Oldest Art.

History of Ochre Use in Africa

Early Use
Humans began using ochre about half a million years ago, during the Lower Paleolithic. Evidence for this comes from South African sites of the Late Acheulean and Fauresmith tool cultures.

Other ochre finds are known from sites in Kenya, Zambia, and Ethiopia. Initial use of ochre was limited to a few localities in sub-Saharan Africa, with no obvious centre of innovation.

These early ochre remains sometimes display evidence of scraping and grinding. Archaeologists believe this material was used by Homo heidelbergensis, a key species in the origin of Neanderthals and modern humans (modern Homo sapiens).

Increased Use
During the early Middle Stone Age, a small increase in ochre use occurred from about 310,000 to 210,000 BC, which may have been due to the emergence of archaic Homo sapiens.

The subsequent period between about 210,000 and 140,000 years ago corresponds to a marked rise in ochre use across the African continent and is clearly linked to modern Homo sapiens.

Habitual Use
Regular use of ochre begins about 140,000 BC. During this period, ochre artifacts are the third most common archaeological find after stone tools and animal bones.

Hot spots of ochre usage have been pinpointed in eastern, southern, and northwest Africa.

High concentrations of the pigment were discovered at numerous prehistoric sites in South Africa, especially during the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort sub-cultures of the Middle Stone Age. Sites like Sibudu Cave and Blombos Cave, for instance, yielded hundreds, sometimes thousands of individual ochre pieces.

Crayons, Scoring, Engraving
A large number of ochre pieces show signs of human modification, such as grinding or shaving, while some pieces have been fashioned into crude crayons, possibly to be used as tools for painting thin lines and geometrical motifs on rocks, or human skin.

Several fragments from Blombos Cave, Klasies River Cave, Klein Kliphuis and Pinnacle Point Cave show geometrical score-marks, or engravings.

Such artifacts cast light on the emergence of symbolically mediated behaviour in paleolithic culture, and tend to support the idea that modern man first learned this behaviour in Africa, before arriving in Europe.

Toolkits, Burials
Among the most striking finds, were the two ochre toolkits recovered from a 100,000-year-old floor deposit at Blombos Cave, which included a wide variety of tools and containers for processing ochre pigments.

Also, remains of ochre pigment started to appear in human burials. At Border Cave in Kwazulu-Natal, for instance, a sea snail shell containing red ochre was found alongside the burial of a 4-6 month-old infant, dated to 74,000 BC.

Early Ochre Use Outside Africa

Ochre usage has been reported in Europe, the Caucasus, and India, prior to 300,000 BC. However, the oldest reliable evidence for the use of red ochre outside Africa, derives from Neanderthal activities at Maastricht-Belvédère in the Netherlands, dating to between 250,000 and 200,000 BC.

This is followed by a gap of more than 100,000 years, after which usage picks up in the European archaeological record, as evidenced by finds at Grotte du Renne, Pech de l’Azé, and Roc-de-Combe in France.

From around 65,000 BC, coinciding with the surge of modern humans moving out of Africa into the Middle East and Europe, ochre becomes widely used in Europe.

It also appears in Australia around 65,000 BC, and in China around 40,000 BC.

It's earliest use in SE Asia, is in the Sulawesi cave paintings, in Indonesia, which date to 43,500 BC.

Interpretation

Why was ochre so popular? Why was it used so widely? The answer, surely, lies in the power of red ochre as a visual signal.

According to George Washington University paleoanthropologist Alison Brooks, "it’s no coincidence that some languages have only two words for colour: red and not-red. A language may not have a word for green or blue, but there is always a word for red."

This type of signalling is what anthropologists call symbolic behaviour, and it's the reason ochre use is often cited as evidence of cognitive ability.

Cognitive Implications of Ochre Use

Archaeologists who believe ochre use to be primarily symbolic, and thus a proxy for cognitive development, usually point to the following:

Symbolic Use of Ochre in Cave Art

The Upper Paleolithic is noted for its spectacular cave art, which was heavily dependent upon the sourcing, processing and use of ochre pigments.

Most archaeologists agree that such cave art - associated as it is with modern Homo sapiens - is a key indicator of cognitive advancement.

Here are some of the most famous paleolithic caves to be decorated with ochre.

Functional Uses of Ochre

Archaeologists who don't believe ochre was used primarily for symbolic reasons, usually emphasize the many practical functions of the material, as follows:

All these uses are extremely practical, and could easily account for the popularity of the pigment. However, while ochre may have had many functional applications, they were likely secondary to the material’s symbolic use.

NEXT: See: Timeline of Prehistoric Art.

References

(1) "Emergence of modern human behavior: Middle Stone Age engravings from South Africa." Henshilwood, C. et al. 2002. Science 295: 1278-1280.
(2) "Patterns of change and continuity in ochre use during the late Middle Stone Age of the Horn of Africa: The Porc-Epic Cave record." Rosso DE, d'Errico F, Queffelec A (2017) PLoS ONE 12(5): e0177298.
(3) "The Emergence of Habitual Ochre Use in Africa and its Significance for The Development of Ritual Behavior During The Middle Stone Age." Dapschauskas, R., Göden, M.B., Sommer, C. et al. J World Prehist 35, 233–319 (2022).
(4) Watts, I. 1999. "The origin of symbolic culture." In R. Dunbar, C. Knight and C. Power (eds), The Evolution of Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 113-46.
(5) "Archaeology of Ancient Australia." Hiscock, Peter (2007-12-12). Routledge. p. 125. ISBN 978-1-134-30440-0.
(6) "New ages for human occupation and climatic change at Lake Mungo, Australia". Bowler JM, Johnston H, Olley JM, Prescott JR, Roberts RG, Shawcross W, Spooner NA (2003). Nature. 421 (6295): 837–40.

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