Researchers have discovered an over 100,000-year-old workshop in South Africa, which may have been used by early Homo sapiens to make, mix and also to stock up ochre - the most primitive form of paint.
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.
We waited three years before publishing to make sure the analysis was right, said Henshilwood in a statement. I think we've established rather accurately that the reported contents of the shells are correct.
In the study, which appeared in 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 conceptual ability to mix and store substances such as ochre signified 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.
It shows that these people had the capacity for forward and deliberate planning, and it suggests they also had a basic understanding of chemistry - that things could be combined together to reach an end result, said Henshilwood.
The findings at the Blombos Cave revealed the cognitive skills of early Homo sapiens in Africa before they left for Asia around 60,000 to 80,000 years ago, he added.