A red ochre powder in a pair of abalone shells is evidence for the oldest art studio. The shells were discovered in 2008 in Blombos cave on the coast of South Africa. A team led by Christopher Henshilwood, an archaeologist at the University of Bergen in Norway and the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, published its findings in the journal Science this year.
Henshilwood reported that underneath a round stone covering the opening of one of the shells was the bright red ochre substance. The team also found grindstones, hammerstones, a small fire pit, and animal bones that were used to transfer the paint.
I have written several posts about prehistoric cave art in France and Spain. Cro-Magnon people are thought to have created that art 32,000 to 25,000 years ago. This art studio in southern Africa is vastly older. Henshilwood’s team dated the age of the Blombos art material at 100,000 years, far older than the previous earliest known paint-making workshop which had been dated to 60,000 years. This discovery is also proof that humans that long ago were capable of long-term planning and had a basic knowledge of chemistry.
“They seemed to know that seal bone is really rich in oil and fat, which is a critical component in making a paint-like substance,” Henshilwood said. “They also knew to add charcoal to the mixture to bind and stabilize it, and a little bit of fluid, which could have been water or seawater or urine.” Each ingredient had to be individually prepared before being combined in the shells. The ochre pieces had to be crushed into a powder, the bones heated to release their oils and then crushed, and wood burned to produce charcoal. “The mixture was very gently stirred, and you can see the traces of the [finger] stirring on the bottom surface of the abalone shell.” The iron oxide in this particular ochre gave the paint its bright red hue.
Henshilwood speculates that the early humans used the paint to decorate their bodies or cave walls.