100,000-Year-Old Paint Factory Suggests Early Humans Knew Chemistry

By Veronique Greenwood | October 14, 2011 12:22 pm

spacing is important
The ochre paint found in the abalone shells
seems to have been made from a specific recipe.

As archaeologists unearth scattered artifacts from the early years of our species, one of the questions they ask themselves is, when did early humans start thinking and behaving like modern humans? The recent discovery of 100,000-year-old site where paint was manufactured—equipped with mixing containers and tools—suggests that even very distant ancestors had something of our ability to plan, as well as a basic sense of chemistry.

The paint makers, who lived in South Africa 20,000-30,000 years before archaeologists had previously thought such complex thought processes possible, used a specific recipe and brought in ochre, the red mineral, from a whopping 20 kilometers away before mixing it in abalone shells with melted fat from bone marrow and a fluid that might be urine. Bringing ochre all that way indicates forethought and planning, the researchers believe, and the mixture in the different shells they found is the same, suggesting that the paint makers followed a standard recipe. As the lead researcher told Nature News:

“This isn’t just a chance mixture, it is early chemistry. It suggests conceptual and probably cognitive abilities which are the equivalent of modern humans,” he says.

Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand who was not involved in the research, adds that it implies that people at that time could “think in abstract terms” about the quality and quantity of their ingredients. “Making compounds of any kind implies complex cognition,” she says.

Exactly what the red paint was used for is still unclear, but it could have been for body decorations or, less whimsically, for insect repellent. Read more at Nature News.

Image courtesy of F. d’Errico and C. Henshilwood, Science/AAAS.

  • Surprise

    Yet another example of incorrect assumptions being proven wrong. This revelation and others like it will be conveniently forgotten each and every time someone wants to talk about the origins of man from their preconceived point of view based on flimsy theories.

  • Chrysoprace

    @1: The scientific point of view adjusts to new and better information as it becomes available, reflecting our ability to reason and learn. We don’t already feel we know everything worth knowing, and “God did it” is the same as “I don’t understand.”

  • Science says

    @2 Admitting you are wrong is not a virtue relative to not being wrong in the first place. Evolution consistently makes claims and then unmakes them and in the process feels proud of itself that its “Fact” is now more of a fact.

    What experimental evidence would disprove evolution?

    Therefore evolution is a religious belief.

    Saying evolution did it is like saying God did it but he is your friend and you are in on the secret. Every time you are wrong you can just say your friend was pulling a trick on you. But the fact that he is pulling tricks on you just proves how close of friends you really are and now you are REALLY in the know with this new theory.

  • Chrysoprace

    Evidence to disprove evolution would be anything in the fossil record or tree of life that did not fit the theory. Nothing like that has been found. Instead, multiple, seperate fields of science all support evolution in different ways. If you really have any interest in understanding why evolution is a fact, watch the Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism videos on YouTube, Aron can explain far better than I can.

  • Chrysoprace

    Of course, you won’t actually do so, studies have shown that people tend to avoid or attack anything that does not agree with their established worldview, with a stronger tendancy in those who self-identified as religious, conservative, or Republican.

  • Corky

    Great point, a religion is anything which is mandatory to believe, but prohibited falsification. Evolution (and I am an evolutionist) is only investigated for promotion, not falsification and as such is a religion. We need to thoroughly vett the genome of every animal and match that to our cladistic presumptions before we can say that we have tested Evolution for falsification. Anything short of that, is a half hearted way of avoiding it and making it into a religion rather than a science. I like Evolution the science, but will not allow myself to make it into my religion.

  • http://twitter.com/GSKowal Greg Kowal

    “Evolution (and I am an evolutionist) is only investigated for promotion, not falsification and as such is a religion”- that is one silly statement. Countless studies on a daily basis are being done on human DNA, fossils, and other related fields which can find out something new that would falsify the theory of evolution, yet none of them have done so. Your claim that evolution is only investigated for promotion is silly and I highly doubt you are actually a person who accepts the theory but rather is a creationist in disguise. Comparing theory of evolution to religion is one of the clues a creationist person would state. Anyone who knows anything about the evolution would never make that comparison.


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