|11 November 2003
A Study in Scarlet: Israel cave symbols
The discovery of 71 pieces of red ochre in the oldest section of a burial cave in Israel has prompted researchers to suggest that the symbolic thinking that marked the beginning of modern-day human thought arose deep in the Stone Age. The received wisdom has been that the assignment of symbolic meaning to specific items and colours emerged no earlier than 50,000 years ago. But the association of red ochre with skeletons found in the oldest section of the Qafzeh Cave has been taken to indicate that symbolic burial rites were being performed more than 90,000 years ago.
The controversial theory that modern thought did not emerge with the appearance of Upper Paleolithic cultures has been put forward by Erella Hovers of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who directed the Qafzeh project. She argues that in the Middle East and Eurasia “many symbolic behaviours that are considered modern existed for a time [before the Upper Paleolithic] and then disappeared, to be reinvented time and again”. The ‘continual reinvention’ proposal stems from the fact that similar ochre use does not appear again in the Qafzeh Cave until 12,700 years ago.
Red ochre is a form of iron oxide which yields a pigment when heated. The precise meaning of the use of ochre is unknown, but it was widely used in primitive societies and even today the colour red is used in non-industrial cultures as a symbol of fertility or vitality. The ochre at Qafzeh was brought to the cave from nearby sources. Large hearths and ochre-stained tools in the same sediment levels that contain the oldest human remains show that the ochre was worked on-site. Hovers and her co-workers say that the pigment was used with the shells of inedible molluscs found in the cave, possibly in symbolic activities related to burying the dead.
Prehistoric symbolic expressions most commonly occurred in large populations that stayed for extended periods in resource-rich locations, says Hovers. But in the small nomadic groups typical of Stone Age Middle East symbolic behaviour would have surfaced for special activities at special sites, such as interment of the dead at Qafzeh Cave.
A report published in the August-October Current Anthropology has had a mixed reception. Sally McBrearty of the University of Connecticut believes that Qafzeh adds to the evidence of the great antiquity of the colour red as a symbolic category, pointing out that engraved ochre dates to 77,000 years ago in South Africa. On the other hand, Richard G. Klein of Stanford University holds that ochre use was merely a step towards advanced symbolic culture, which he places at around 50,000 years ago.
(Editor’s note: On the other hand!! One of Britains most eminent archaeologists has recently argued that the modern mind emerged, not 50,000 years ago, not 90,000 years ago, but 10,000 years ago with the spread of agri-pastoralism. See Archaeo News, 21 October 2003.)
Source: Science News (1 November 2003)
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