Ancient art studio uncovered in SA

2011-10-13 22:51

Cape Town - Two shells containing a primitive paint mixture have been uncovered in South Africa, revealing what researchers believe may be the remnants of a 100 000 year old art studio.

The abalone shells held a paste containing ochre, an earthy iron ore offering yellow or red hues, which may have been used for painting or body decoration, said the study in the journal Science.

The shells were found at Blombos Cave near Cape Town with other tools, which suggested the users were scraping off ochre flakes and mixing them with other compounds to form a liquid paint.

Stone Age artists possibly rubbed pieces of ochre on quartzite slabs to make a fine red powder. Any chips of ochre were probably crushed with quartz hammers and mixed with hot crushed animal bone, charcoal, stone chips and some liquid.

The concoction was then transferred to the shells and "gently stirred," said the study led by Christopher Henshilwood from the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

"A bone was probably used to stir the mixture and to transfer some of the mixture out of the shell," said the study.

The discovery suggests that humans of the era understood some basic chemistry and were able to plan ahead to store the paint for future use, whether ceremonial, decorative or protective.

"Ochre may have been applied with symbolic intent as decoration on bodies and clothing during the Middle Stone Age," said Henshilwood.


"This discovery represents an important benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition in that it shows that humans had the conceptual ability to source, combine and store substances that were then possibly used to enhance their social practices."

Scientists were able to date the quartz sediments in which the shells were found to 100 000 years ago using a process called optically stimulated luminescence dating (OSL).

The absence of other archaeological remains in the area suggests the "site was used primarily as a workshop and was abandoned shortly after the compounds were made," said the study.

"Sand then blew into the cave from the outside, encapsulating the tool kits."

The two specimens will be on display at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town beginning on October 14.

  • Juanita - 2011-10-14 07:39

    Seriously???? You guys are turning this into a racial issue?? By all means lets ignore everything else that this is all about and make it a racial issue. ***sigh***

  • Gareth - 2011-10-14 08:02

    Abalone Shells hey, I guess we can presume there is the possibility that they may have been capable swimmers 100,000 years ago. Or do empty abalone shells wash ashore easily?

      Chris.House.Za - 2011-10-14 13:33

      Early modern Homo sapiens could regularly find abalone, amongst many other mollusks, in large numbers in shallow inter tidal zones.

  • mahlatse.mokwatlo - 2011-10-14 08:07

    I think we should all get over ourselves! Why is everything "black and white or black vs white?" Fine discovery- that's it!

      Ann - 2011-10-14 08:18

      Hear, hear!!

      Lanfear - 2011-10-14 13:18

      Fully agreed, well said!

      zaatheist - 2011-10-14 13:58

      Absolutely. It has nothing to do with race and everything to do with who we all are and who our common ancestors were.

  • Grant - 2011-10-14 09:16

    ja,, it seems that africa was really ahead of its time.. and the rest followed.. well done primative SA.. you rocked..

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