Image 1 - World’s Earliest Art Studio Uncovered In Cape Town Cave
October 14, 2011

World’s Earliest Art Studio Uncovered In Cape Town Cave

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Archaeologists have uncovered two shells near the southern coast of South Africa that contain a primitive paint mixture, revealing what experts believe may be the remnants of the world´s earliest art studio.

The 100,000-year-old workshop was likely used to mix and store the reddish pigment ochre, and was unearthed in Blombos Cave near Cape Town. 

The scientists had previously found some of the earliest sharp stone tools at this same site, along with evidence of fishing.

The current findings include red and yellow pigments, grinding cobbles, bone spatulas, and an ochre-rich mixture -- possibly used for decoration, painting and skin protection -- stored in two abalone shells.

The ancient cave artisans used stones for pounding and grinding colorful dirt enriched with a kind of iron oxide to a powder, known as ochre.  This was then blended with the binding fat of mammal-bone marrow and a smidgen of charcoal. 

The practice was common in Africa and the Near East only after about 100,000 years ago, the researchers noted.

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

Henshilwood and his international team of researchers had also discovered a processing workshop in 2008 where a liquefied ochre-rich mixture was produced.

The current 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," he explained.

"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."

The quartz sediments in which the ochre containers were buried were dated to about 100,000 years using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating. This is consistent with the thermoluminescence dating of burnt lithics and the dating of calcium carbonate concretions using uranium-series dating methods.

"The recovery of these toolkits adds evidence for early technological and behavioral developments associated with humans and documents their deliberate planning, production and curation of pigmented compound and the use of containers. It also demonstrates that humans had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning 100,000 years ago," said Henshilwood.

The two specimens will be on display at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town from Friday, October 14, 2011.

The findings will be published in the journal Science, on Friday, October 14, 2011.


Image 1: The nacre and inside of the Tk1 abalone shell (Tk1-S1) after removal of the quartzite grindstone. The red deposit is the ochre rich mixture that was in the shell and preserved under the cobble grinder. Credit: Grethe Moell Pedersen

Image 2: Entrance to Blombos Cave looking to west. Credit: Christopher Henshilwood


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