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South African - Norwegian research collaboration:

Stone age paint shop discovered in South Africa

A paint-maker in South Africa left behind his or her grindstone, stirring stick, tiny mixing bowl and other tools in a cave – for 100,000 years. These groundbreaking findings are a result of a project partly funded by the South Africa - Norway Programme for Research Co-operation.

These are the oldest known signs of people planning ahead and storing things, said archaeologist and excavation leader Christopher Henshilwood in a Science podcast. “It’s the first known instance for deliberate planning, production and curation of a compound,” he said. It’s also the first known instance of the idea of Tupperware. “Use of containers before this time period is unknown.”

The conceptual ability to source, combine, and store substances that enhance technology or social practices I regarded as a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition.

Blombos cave Researchers equipment inside Blombos Cave (Photo: Magnus Haaland) The article titled “A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa” was published in the Science Magazine in mid-October. It has already caught a lot of public media attention. Recently the largest Norwegian weekend magazine “A-magasinet” ran the story.

Christopher S. Henshilwood is affiliated with the Institute for Archaeology, History, Culture and Religion, University of Bergen, and the Institute for Human Evolution, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Amongst his co-authors is Professor Stein-Erik Lauritzen at the Department of Earth Science, University of Bergen, and scientists from France and Australia.

In 2008, the international team of archaeologists dug the tools out, discovering two “toolkits” for making ochre paint. The kits were buried under meters of sand in Blombos Cave, about 190 miles east of Cape Town. A lot of what we know about the first Homo sapiens comes from artifacts dug up in Blombos Cave.

The recipe for prehistoric ochre pigment was rather complex. The Stone Age paint-makers probably used stone hammers to grind up ochre, a type of naturally colored clay, until it was a fine powder. Archaeologists found ochre powder on the surface of this quartzite slab, suggesting that it was used as a grinder.

They added ground-up animal bone, charcoal and a liquid (maybe water, maybe urine). They mixed it all in abalone shells, and used an animal bone to scoop it out. A canine leg bone had ochre on its tip. Stone Age artists may have used it to transfer paint out of their abalone-shell mixing bowl.

Researchers aren’t sure what the paint-makers used their ochre for, but they may have decorated their bodies with it or rubbed it on as sunscreen.

Written by:
Kristen Ulstein Special Adviser +47 22 03 75 25 ku@forskningsradet.no
Published:
 08.11.2011
Last updated:
09.11.2011