The Color of Life and Death
Blombos Cave in South Africa was already famous in archaeological circles as the site where researchers found a series of pierced shells, carefully worked stone points, a tool kit, and a block of red ochre marked with crisscross designs, all more than 60,000 years old (photo). (See earlier post “I Think; Therefore I Decorate Myself.”) Most of the media attention went to the shells as evidence of some of the oldest, if not the oldest, jewelry in the world. Perhaps while we were dazzled by the jewelry, we should have looked a little more closely at the decorated block of red ochre that went with them.
This month, Blombos Cave was in the news again, in the journal Science and The New
York Times. An international team of researchers working in Blombos Cave, led by Dr. Christopher Hencilwood, has identified a full paint kit which is 100,000 years old. The main ingredient of the paint is red ochre, a mineral clay that gets its color from iron oxide. Tools at the site include hammerstones and grind stones to chip and crush the clay and abalone shells to serve as bowls. (See photo.) In order to get the composition they wanted, the ancient people mixed the crushed red ochre with animal fat, charcoal, stone chips, quartz grains, and some liquid, then stirred the mix in the shells. The find also included stir sticks with the same substance still on them.
Why was red ochre worth all this effort?
This is a difficult question to answer, but there are some clues. In many ancient societies, red ochre was associated with blood and therefore with both life and death. It was used in body decoration, medicines, wood and sail preservatives, compounds for dying and preserving skins, as well as preparations used on the dead. Ochre-painted bones dated to 62,000 years ago were found in Australia. The practice was also common in Mesoamerica. In parts of Asia, cinnabar was used instead.
Ancient Pict warriors (Scotland) painted themselves with red ochre. The Celts (England and Ireland) were called “red men” from their habit of painting themselves with a substance called bog iron. The Chumash Indians (California) used red ochre in their body paint. The Moche (Peru) used it in face paint. Ancient Egyptian women used red ochre for their lipstick and rouge. Australian Aborigines used different color
ochre pigments (red, yellow, brown) for their body and rock paintings.
In many other cases, red pigment was rubbed on a sacred object in order to awaken its power.
Today, many people still use red ochre in body
painting. The Maasai paint their bodies and color their hair with red ochre (photo). Hamar brides in Africa wear a mixture of ochre and animal fat. Sudanese women from the Nuba mountains wear a mixture of oil and red ochre between puberty and their first pregnancy. Iron oxide is one of the ingredients in common makeup blusher.
While not all of these uses are the same, they all point to a spiritual and social value of red pigment associated with blood, life, power, fertility, even death.
The blocks and paint pots found at Blombos might then represent both spirit power and trade wealth.
The people who left these pots behind were knowledgeable in the materials needed to get them the red paint they wanted. That involved transfer of information (I tried it this way and it didn’t work. I found a good source of red ochre about a day’s hike from here.), gathering or manufacture of tools, and plan for the dissemination of this material. There was no hearth found with the paint pots. Did they go to this cave specifically to make paint? Was the cross-hatch mark a way to bring out the magical power of the block, a way to claim ownership, or a counting system? At this point we can’t tell, but these bring up more questions about these people’s intelligence, their communication system, their social network, and their cosmological beliefs.
To go back to the decorated blocks for a moment, look at the cross-hatch marks, including the top and bottom lines that enclose the design. It’s a very purposeful creation. It would seem to move the date for the first art back from 40,000 years ago (the cave paintings of France and Spain) to 100,000 years ago, which is quite a step. But, you complain, a couple of decorated blocks aren’t much; there aren’t any paintings in Blombos Cave. True. I suspect the canvas was the human body, not a rock wall. The people who valued the pierced shells in the first necklace had to have a beautiful painted body on which to wear it.
The oldest art is body art, much of which is still alive today, from the exquisite henna designs on a bride to the tattooed face of a Maori to the array of clothing, hair styles, makeup, piercings, and tattoos worn by people of all ages walking the streets of America. The sense of purposeful creation of ourselves is part of our heritage as humans.