Oldest Paint-Making Workshop Dates Back 100,000 Years

An ancient abalone shell used for paint making and storage. Credit: Science/AAAS.

When early humans wanted to paint their bodies, cave walls and anything else for that matter, they used ochre, the red and yellow pigments found in earth and rock. Today archeologists are reporting the discovery of a 100,000 year-old ochre-making workshop—the oldest to date--in the Blombos cave along the Cape coast of South Africa. This pushes back the date--by nearly a factor of two—for when early humans produced and stored chemical products such as paint. The next oldest evidence of a workshop dates from 60,000 years ago. The discovery shows that 100,000-year-old humans “had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning,” note the authors of the Science paper (DOI: 10.1126/science.1211535), which includes Norway’s Christopher Hensilwood. It’s pretty of amazing to think that a group of Middle Stone Age humans had a paint factory in operation. Apparently the ancient workers first ground the ochre pigments (which are iron oxides and hydroxides) out of rock. Then they heated up animal bones to extract fat and marrow which was used as a binder for the ochre pigments. The early humans also added a bit of charcoal to the mix. Then the paint was stored in abalone shells. Normally there’s a little air hole found in such shells but the ancient workers blocked the hole so that the paint would last longer. Pretty smart for a caveman (or cavewoman).

Location, location, location. The Blombos cave along South Africa's Cape coast. Credit: Science/AAAS.

Incidentally, up on the embargoed Science media site, where journalists can download photos of the pigment-making artifacts, there’s also sequence of amazing shots of the coastal workshop cave. I think it’s pretty clear that this workshop discovery also reveals that ancient humans were early adopters of the real estate truism: location, location, location.

Author: Sarah Everts

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