Among the oldest known examples of symbolic behaviour amongst humans and our close hominid relations is the use of ochre in burial rites, body ornamentation and cave art. Indeed, what is claimed to be the world’s oldest abstract art consists of a block of ochre rubbed smooth and marked with a diamond pattern, dating from 70,000 years ago and found in a South African cave on the southern Cape shore of the Indian Ocean.

Now, for the first time, archaeologists have located an ochre ‘factory’ in South Africa, dating from 58,000 years ago, that has revealed an astonishing level of technical finesse in the processing and use of the iron-based pigment.

The finding is described in the Journal of Archaeological Science, where Lyn Wadley,┬áProfessor in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies and in the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, describes her team’s discovery of four hearths containing ochre powder at the large Sibudu rock shelter north of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal.

The hearth’s themselves are innovative, being constructed of hard cement made from calcined ash. This provided a sturdy work surface for heating, grinding and storing ochre, which changes colour from yellow or brown to shades of red when heated.

Wadley’s team also excavated some 8,000 pieces of ochre that had been collected from sites within a half-mile radius of the rock shelter. Other finds from the site included bone awl tools that could have been used for working leather, raising the possibility that ochre was used to create colourful leather goods and clothing.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 42. Click here to subscribe

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