KSJ Tracker October 14, 2011

Much ink: Prehistoric humans were making paint 100,000 years ago

Gosh! They were so much like us. That may be the most common response to archaeological finds that reach the popular media. It seems like a trivial reaction, but maybe it's not. Maybe it's akin to what we might feel upon learning of life on another planet. We're not alone; we are part of something more widespread, something vastly older. Our ways are ancient. An international team of archaeologists has discovered what they report to be a 100,000-year-old workshop in a South African cave on the Indian Ocean coast where anatomically modern--and maybe even intellectually modern--people manufactured red paint. There were tools for grinding red ochre, mixing it with fat from animal bones (a binder that would be used for tens of thousands of years) and other substances in an abalone shell bowl. There were firepits for cooking the bones, apparently from seals harvested close by and hammerstones for crushing them to extract marrow. The AP, in an unbylined story picked up by many outlets, says it "may have been the world's earliest artist's studio." The oldest cave paintings in Europe would not be created for another 70,000 or so years. It is generally thought that the first anatomically modern human beings evolved nearly 200,000 years ago. Brian Vastag of the Washington Post paints the picture in his lede: "A hundred thousand years ago, not long after Homo sapiens emerged as a species, a craftsman — or woman — sat in a cave overlooking the Indian Ocean, crushed a soft rusty red rock, mixed it inside a shell with charcoal and animal marrow, and dabbed it on something — maybe a face, maybe a wall." At the Christian Science MonitorPete Spotts ledes this way: "Cosmetic giants Mabelline-Garnier or Helene Curtis standing on the shoulders of Stone Age artisans?" The venerable John Noble Wilford writes in the New York Times that the workshop is evidence of not only of a nascent knowledge of chemistry but of long-term planning since the materials (the ochre may have come from a site 12 miles away) and tools had to be assembled in advance. Amina Khan reported the story for the Los Angeles Times and noted something most others missed--that below the red paint still hardened into the bowl, there was yellow paint, perhaps from an earlier job. At Science News, Bruce Bower referred to the ancient paint as a "colorful pigment of their imagination." Andy Coghlan writes in New Scientist that one ingredient probably used to make the paint was urine.

-Boyce Rensberger



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