A new discovery in South Africa has suggested that early Homo sapiens might have used paint kits as long as 100,000 years ago in order to make, mix and store ochre - the ancient form of paint. However, there has not been any solid evidence of what they used the paints for.
Previously, it was thought that the earliest known art comes from the site of Blombos in South Africa, an area located some 300 kilometers east of Cape Town. In 2008, Professor Christopher Henshilwood from the University of Bergen in Norway and University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, along with an international team of colleagues, discovered pieces of ochre carved with an abstract design in the cave, which had been dated as 77,000 years old.
But now, researchers have unearthed even older signs of ochre that were used at Blombos and other sites as old as 165,000 years. The cave was found littered with hammers and grindstones for making ochre powder. The findings also include two abalone shells that had once been used to store a red, ochre-rich mixture that was combined with bone and charcoal.
Just what they used the paints for is still a matter of debate. However, researchers believe that early painters could possibly use the paint to decorate skin or clothing or to protect the skin, given that ochre is known to repel mosquitoes and other insects.
In the study, which appeared in the Friday, Oct. 14, issue of the journal Science, Henshilwood and his team of researchers report that the two ochre-processing toolkits were found only 16 centimeters apart in the same layer. The abalone shells consisted of chunks of ochre-stained quartzite rock that looked like it was used to grind the mixture. There was also part of the forearm bone, possibly of a wolf or fox in one of the shells, which researchers believe might have been used to mix the paint or remove it out of the shell.
The team of researchers concluded that the two shells were components of an ochre workshop. Researchers suggested that the Blombos humans followed a series of steps to create the ochre paint. The steps included breaking up the pigment into a powder, heating the bone before crushing and adding it to the mix and putting the paint into the shells where it was gently stirred, according to a Sciencemag report.
The researchers said the ability to mix and store substances like ochre represented a critical point in the evolution of human thinking. The discovery revealed aspects of modern behavior, for instance, advance planning and an elementary knowledge of chemistry, they said.
Henshilwood said that the findings at the Blombos Cave showed the cognitive skills of ancient humans in Africa before they left for Asia around 60,000 to 80,000 years ago.
Archaeologist Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in South Africa called the new discoveries astonishing and extraordinary. The shells are the proofs that early Homo sapiens could multitask and think in abstract terms about the qualities of the ingredients that they manipulated, Wadley said.