Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Two shells containing a primitive paint mixture have been uncovered in South Africa, revealing what researchers believe may be the remnants of a 100 000 year old art studio. The abalone shells held a paste containing ocher, an earthy iron ore offering yellow or red hues, which may have been used for painting or body decoration, said the study in the journal Science. The shells were found at Blombos Cave near Cape Town with other tools, which suggested the users were scraping off ocher flakes and mixing them with other compounds to form a liquid paint.

Stone Age artists possibly rubbed pieces of ocher on quartzite slabs to make a fine red powder. Any chips of ocher were probably crushed with quartz hammers and mixed with hot crushed animal bone, charcoal, stone chips and some liquid. The concoction was then transferred to the shells and "gently stirred," said the study led by Christopher Henshilwood from the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

The discovery suggests that humans of the era understood some basic chemistry and were able to plan ahead to store the paint for future use, whether ceremonial, decorative or protective.

"This discovery represents an important benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition in that it shows that humans had the conceptual ability to source, combine and store substances that were then possibly used to enhance their social practices."

Scientists were able to date the quartz sediments in which the shells were found to 100 000 years ago using a process called optically stimulated luminescence dating (OSL). The absence of other archaeological remains in the area suggests the "site was used primarily as a workshop and was abandoned shortly after the compounds were made," said the study.

"Sand then blew into the cave from the outside, encapsulating the tool kits."


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