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6 July 2015
South Africans using milk-based paint 49,000 years ago

A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa has discovered a milk and ochre based paint dating to 49,000 years ago. Ochre is a natural pigment containing iron oxide, that can range in colour from yellow and orange to red and brown.
     The powdered paint mixture was found on the edge of a small stone flake in a layer of Sibudu Cave, a rock shelter in northern KwaZulu-Natal that was occupied by anatomically modern humans in the Middle Stone Age, from roughly 77,000 years ago to about 38,000 years ago.
     This is the first time a paint containing ochre and milk has ever been found in association with early humans in South Africa, said Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and lead study author.
     "Although the use of the paint still remains uncertain, this surprising find establishes the use of milk with ochre well before the introduction of domestic cattle in South Africa," says Villa. Cattle were not domesticated in South Africa until 1,000 to 2,000 years ago. The milk was likely obtained by killing lactating members of the bovid family such as buffalo, eland, kudu and impala, Villa explains.
     At both African and European archaeological sites, scientists have found evidence of ochre dating back 250,000 years. By 125,000 years ago, there is evidence ochre was being ground up to produce a paint powder in South Africa.
     An approximately 100,000-year-old ochre-rich compound blended with animal marrow fat was found at the Middle Stone Age site of Blombos Cave in South Africa.
     Body painting is widely practiced by the indigenous San people in South Africa, and is depicted in ancient rock art. While there are no ethnographic precedents for mixing ochre with milk as a body paint, the modern Himba people in Namibia mix ochre with butter as a colouring agent for skin, hair and leather clothing, Villa said.

Edited from EurekAlert! (30 June 2015)

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