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14 October 2011
Paleolithic art workshop discovered in South African cave

Within the darkness of Blombos Cave near Cape Town, South Africa, archaeologists have uncovered an assemblage of tools and remains of what appears to be a workshop or work area containing toolkits used by early modern humans about 100,000 years ago to mix, make and store ochre, the earliest form of paint often used by Paleolithic people to create artwork on the walls of caves and for other decorative purposes.
     "This discovery shows that humans had the conceptual ability to source, combine and store substances that were then possibly used to enhance their social practices. We believe that the manufacturing process involved the rubbing of pieces of ochre on quartzite slabs to produce a fine red powder. Ochre chips were crushed with quartz, quartzite and silcrete hammerstones/grinders and combined with heated crushed, mammal-bone, charcoal, stone chips and a liquid, which was then introduced to the abalone shells and gently stirred. A bone was probably used to stir the mixture and to transfer some of the mixture out of the shell," Professor Christopher Henshilwood from the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, said.
     Henshilwood actually made the discovery while excavating the Blombos Cave along with colleagues back in 2008. Findings included an assortment of lithic hammers and grindstones, and two abalone shells that had evidently been used as containers to hold and store a red, ochre-rich mixture that was also mixed with ground bone and charcoal.
     Ochre, the prime ingredient of the ancient paint, is derived from a naturally colored clay containing iron mineral oxides. It produces the yellow or red color so often associated with the ancient paint and seen to embellish drawings and other works of prehistoric art and possibly used for other purposes, such as body decoration.
     The sediments in which the ochre containers were found were dated to about 100,000 years based on Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating. The use of the ancient paint in human history is well documented only after about 60,000 years ago, which means that the Blombos Cave finds may push back the use of the paint to earlier periods.
     "The recovery of these toolkits adds evidence for early technological and behavioural developments associated with humans and documents their deliberate planning, production and curation of pigmented compound and the use of containers," says Henshilwood.

Edited from Popular Archaeology (13 October 2011)

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