100,000-year-old ochre toolkit discovered at Blombos Cave in South Africa

An ochre-rich mixture stored in two abalone shells has been discovered at Blombos Cave in Cape Town, South Africa.

The mixture, which was possibly used for decoration, painting and skin protection 100,000 years ago and the two spatially associated toolkits, were discovered in situ, with the kits including ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstone and hammerstones.

“Ochre may have been applied with symbolic intent as decoration on bodies and clothing during the Middle Stone Age,” Professor Christopher Henshilwood, Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, said.

“This discovery represents an important benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition (mental processes) 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.

The grinding and scraping of ochre to produce a powder for use as a pigment was common practice in Africa and the Near East only after about 100,000 years ago.

“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,” he stated.

Using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating, it was found that the quartz sediments in which the ochre containers were buried dated to almost 100,000 years ago, which is consistent with the thermoluminescence dating of burnt lithics and the dating of calcium carbonate concretions using uranium-series dating methods.

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The study has been published in the 14th October issue of the prestigious international journal Science.

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