Saturday, 15 October 2011

A Perfectly Preserved, One Hundred Thousand Year Old Ochre Kit

The remarkable art kits from the Blombos Cave
Archaeologists have long thought that humans first began to use ochre for art and in rituals over 100,000 years ago.  Now an artefact which could be described as the oldest example of art set on Earth has been found in a cave on the coast of South Africa. The find is highly important as it pushes back the date for behavioural modernity, the thing that made us cognitively human.

The artefact came from the Blombos Cave in South Africa which, incidentally, was where some of the first and the finest ochre items were also discovered. The maker took shells from a type of sea snail called an ablone. These were then filled with a viscous, ochre rich liquid or charcoal powder. Near to these remarkable finds, were a series of bone tools and rock hammers which were covered in ochre. It is believed that some were grinding tools and others were like brushes. Yet how was the ochre paste made?

'We believe that the manufacturing process involved the rubbing of pieces of ochre on quartzite slabs to produce a fine red powder. Ochre chips were crushed with quartz, quartzite and silcrete hammerstones/grinders and combined with heated crushed, mammal-bone, charcoal, stone chips and a liquid, which was then introduced to the abalone shells and gently stirred. A bone was probably used to stir the mixture and to transfer some of the mixture out of the shell,' said Professor Christopher Henshilwood from the Institute of Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

By using a series of different dating methods, the finds are now thought to be around 100,000 years old. 'The recovery of these toolkits adds evidence for early technological and behavioural developments associated with humans and documents their deliberate planning, production and curation of pigmented compound and the use of containers. It also demonstrates that humans had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning,' concludes Henshilwood.