Sep
29
2006

Color my prehistoric world

Example of ochre cave painting in Kakadu National Park, Northern Australia: Photo courtesy Wikipedia (User: PanBK)
Example of ochre cave painting in Kakadu National Park, Northern Australia: Photo courtesy Wikipedia (User: PanBK)
The use of color symbolism by prehistoric man in Africa may have occurred more than 200,000 years ago, according to a British archeologist whose findings were announced at the annual festival for the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Lawrence Barham, a researcher from Liverpool University, has been studying ancient human artifacts at a cave site known as Twin Rivers in southern Zambia.

A range of mineral pigments, or ochres, have been found at the site, leading Barham to hypothesize that they may have been used ritualistically by early man, in much the same way some cultures today use color to mark passages of childhood into adulthood or of a warrior becoming an elder.

If his theory is correct, it would mean abstract thinking by early humans would have developed far earlier than previously thought.

"As an archaeologist I am interested to find out where color symbolism first appears because for color symbolism to work it must be attached to language," Barham said.

"Color symbolism is an abstraction and we cannot work this abstraction without language; so this is a proxy for trying to find in the archaeological record real echoes for the emergence of language."

Evidence found at the Twin Rivers site suggests tools were becoming more complex, blades attached to handles rather than just simple handaxes. At the same time ochres of a wide range of colors were being used.

Ochres are derived from scraping rocks and mixing the resulting powder with another substance, such as animal fat, to create paint or dye. The ochres found at the Twins Rivers’ site include red, yellow, brown, pink, black and even purple. The type of humans using them is not known, although a bone fragment points to Homo heidelbergensis, a large-brained ancestor of modern man.

Still, skeptics say the ochres could be merely functional, used for such things as preserving hides, or as glue to fasten stone blades to shafts or handles. But Barham disagrees.

"If you were to argue that these oxides were purely functional and have no symbolic value, you have to explain away the range of colors that are being selected from different places in the landscape. Because if it was just for the iron element, any of them would do - the red, or the yellow. Some are closer to the site than others, so it seems that people were deliberately selecting the material for the color property. That's my argument anyway", Barham said.

Links:

More on ochres
Pigments through the Ages
More about Lawrence Barham’s findings.

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