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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins
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