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date: 28 May 2020

Ochre Use in the Middle Stone Age

Summary and Keywords

The term “ochre” has many meanings: a colored stone, a pigment, sunscreen, a curiosity item, a mustard hue, or even an object used for ritual. Ochre found at archaeological sites is described as a range of earthy, ferruginous rocks with red–yellow–purple streaks. The use of ochre in the past has proven valuable for interpreting not only cognitive capabilities of its users but also for its potential to shed light on behavioral and social factors. The late Pleistocene, and specifically the Middle Stone Age in southern Africa, is a time of significant behavioral and cognitive advances for Homo sapiens—this coincides with the habitual use of ochre. By looking at the collection and use of ochre in the African Middle Stone Age, placed within a global and temporal context, important behavioral conclusions can be made. Ochre has many potential uses, making interpretations of ochre use in the past complicated. Ethnographic and modern analogies are considered as well as the experimental work that has been produced by numerous researchers. All accounts have deepened our understanding of the many ways that ochre may have been used in the distant past. It is likely that both its color and mineralogical content dictated its use in the past.

Keywords: ochre, behavior, cognition, complexity, pigment, red, experimental, Middle Stone Age, Late Pleistocene

Ochre, Earth Pigments, and Color in the Past

Anatomically modern Homo sapiens appear c. 300,000 years ago, but evidence of complex and modern behaviors only appears much later at c. 100,000 years ago, possibly even earlier (see Wadley 2015). South African Middle Stone Age (MSA) sites provide evidence for technological advances, subsistence and behavioral innovations, symbolic intent, and creative expression (e.g., Henshilwood et al. 2004, 2009, 2014; d’Errico et al. 2005; d’Errico 2008; Brown et al. 2009; Texier et al. 2010, 2013; d’Errico and Stringer 2011; Lombard 2012; Schmidt et al. 2013; Wadley 2013; Wurz 2013; Mithen 2014). These advances have important cognitive implications for our species. At the same time as other technological advances “appear,” ochre collection and use becomes regular and most MSA sites have significant ochre collections, usually over one hundred pieces, some larger than a few thousand (Henshilwood et al. 2001, 2009, 2014; Watts 2002, 2009, 2010; Hodgskiss 2012, 2013; Dayet et al. 2013). In Africa, strong-red, often sparkly varieties of ochre were preferentially utilized and ochre assemblages and related objects imply a range of processing methods and applications, indicating both the capacity for artistic expression as well as technological inventiveness.

Although the first evidence of the habitual use of ochre is mostly associated with Homo sapiens in Africa, there is evidence that Neanderthals may have used ochre as early as 200,000–250,000 years ago (Roebroeks et al. 2012). Both anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals were possibly responsible for the cave art, pigment use, and symbolic items found in the European Palaeolithic (e.g., d’Errico et al. 1998, 2008; Zilhão et al. 2010; Dayet et al. 2014). The use of pigments in the Middle Palaeolithic was intermittent (Wreschner 1980; Marshack 1981; Zilhão et al. 2010). Black pigments, such as manganese dioxides, were common by the end of the Middle Palaeolithic in Europe around 600,000–40,000 years ago (Demars 1992; Soressi and d’Errico 2007; d’Errico et al. 2010; Heyes et al. 2016), but the use of red and yellow ochres was occasional. By the Upper Palaeolithic, the use of ochre was more common, and numerous sites have sizable ochre assemblages with obvious signs of ochre processing and use (Audouin and Plisson 1982; San Juan 1990; McBrearty and Brooks 2000; Salomon 2009; Iriarte et al. 2009; Dayet et al. 2014; Sajó et al. 2015; Wolf et al. 2018).

Early ochre and pigment use is definitely not only limited to Africa and Europe. There is evidence of regular ochre use in the Near East and some parts of Asia in the middle to later MSA (e.g., Hovers et al. 2003; d’Errico et al. 2010; Langley and O’Connor 2018). New evidence in northern Australia has pushed back the dates of the arrival of humans there as well as the earliest ochre use in the country. Finds from rock shelter Madjedbebe have layers with human occupations dating back to 65,000 years ago. They contain utilized ochre and grindstones along with a distinctive stone tool assemblage (Clarkson et al. 2017). At Jwalapuram in India, one piece of ground ochre was found in a 74,000-year-old layer (Petraglia et al. 2007).

Through geological sourcing studies, it is known that most ochre from archaeological sites was collected and brought back to the sites for use (although there are cases where the sources are present in shelter walls), but direct evidence of ochre mines is rare. Ochre pieces can be collected on the ground, from exposed deposits, or through active mining of deposits. Lion Cavern in Swaziland is the oldest known subterranean mine in the world—it appears to have been exploited around 43,000 years ago, and thousands of tonnes of specular, red hematite was removed (Dart and Beaumont 1969). Sourcing and geological studies have shown that distant sources of ochre, sometimes over 80 km away, were frequently preferred over local sources, and sources also changed through time (Watts 2009; d’Errico et al. 2010; Salomon et al. 2012; Dayet et al. 2013). This may have depended on desired uses, mobility around the landscape, and access to resources. This indicates that not only were certain types of ochre valued over others, but also that people in the MSA had an advanced understanding of types of ochres, which was enough of a reason for them to travel great distances to collect ochre or possibly trade or gift it to other people (Henshilwood and d’Errico 2011; Wadley 2015).

What Is Ochre?

Ochres are composed of different forms of iron oxides and iron hydroxides, such as hematite (Fe2O3) or goethite (FeOOH) (Cornell and Schwertmann 2003), which give the stone its color. Clays, silicates, and other minerals are also found in ochre pieces. Thus, ochre comprises a range of raw materials including shales, ferricretes, hematite, limonite, mudstones, siltstones, earthy sandstones, and specularite. If ochre is heated to temperatures above 250°C, the iron oxyhydroxide (goethite) becomes dehydrated and forms iron oxide (hematite or maghemite, depending on the heating conditions); this results in a color change from yellow to red (Lima-de-Faria 1963; Cornell and Schwertmann 2003). Grinding or pulverizing these rocks creates a soft, fine, colored powder (fig. 1).

Ochre Use in the Middle Stone Age

Figure 1. “Ochre” is a term used for a range of iron-rich rocks that can be pulverized or ground to create colored powder. Photograph: Tania Olsson. Copyright Tammy Hodgskiss.

Early Evidence of Ochre Use

Many of the ochre pieces found in archaeological contexts are pieces that were collected and brought to sites but not used or were used in a way that the surface was left unmodified. Some of the ochre pieces were used by grinding, scraping, engraving, rubbing, crushing, or even knapping it. Ochre has a long record of collection and use, especially in Africa, but also in Europe and the Levant. In 500,000-year-old layers at Kathu Pan, few, but varied ochre pieces were discovered (Watts et al. 2016). A few of these have signs of use. Rare pieces of ochre were found at Wonderwerk (Beaumont and Vogel 2006; Watts et al. 2016) and Canteen Kopje (Watts et al. 2016), dating between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago.

Ochre was collected and used at Twin Rivers in Zambia from about 300,000 years ago (Clark and Brown 2001; Barham 2002). Trace element studies of ochre sources in the area show that ochre pieces from distant sources, up to 20 km away, were preferentially collected, probably because of the higher quality, red-purple, sparkly pigment (Zipkin et al. 2015). At GnJh-15, Kenya, in layers dated to ~28,500 years ago, more than seventy ochre pieces—mostly friable hematite—were found, seldom with evidence of use (McBrearty 1999, 2001; Tryon and McBrearty 2002). Patches of ochre powder were found in the sediment (e.g., van Noten et al. 1987), indicating that ochre processing was taking place. Excavations at Sai Island in Sudan uncovered some ochre pieces, mostly yellow sandy varieties, as well as processing tools in layers dated to 182,000 years ago (van Peer et al. 2003, 2004).

At Maastricht-Belvédère in The Netherlands, fifteen small concentrates or “drops” of hematite mixtures were found in layers dating to around 200,000–250,000 years ago (Roebroeks et al. 2012). The concentrations are non-local, fine-grained materials, varying from yellows to reds. At Terra Amata, France, ochre powder and seventy-five pieces of red, brown, and yellow ochre were discovered in layers dated to as old as 380,000 years ago (de Lumley-Woodyear 1969; Wreschner 1980; Marshack 1981; de Lumley 1986; Yokoyama et al. 1986). Some of the ochre was worn smooth and polished, and it has been suggested that this could be from direct rubbing onto skin to make markings (Wreschner 1985). Color choices may suggest that some of the pieces were heated (de Lumley-Woodyear 1969; de Lumley et al. 2016). The prevalence of red ochre pieces at MSA sites, sometimes when yellow ochre sources are readily available, has prompted research into the potential intentional heat treatment of ochre pieces to obtain red ochre as early as 100,000 years ago (Godfrey-Smith and Ilani 2004; Wadley 2009; d’Errico et al. 2010; Salomon et al. 2012; Wojcieszak et al. 2017).

Late Pleistocene Ochre Use: Sites

By 100,000 years ago, ochre was abundant at most MSA sites and there is evidence that it was used in numerous ways. Many of the MSA sites are situated near the coast, but sites in the interior exhibit similar ochre usage patterns as the coastal sites. The ochre assemblages range in size from just a few pieces to thousands of pieces, with many ochre pieces just 2–3 cm in maximum length.

Over 500 pieces of ochre have been found at Pinnacle Point Cave 13B, South Africa, in layers dating between 164,000 and 92,000 years ago (Marean et al. 2007; Watts 2010). Pieces with traces of utilization comprise 12.7 percent of the assemblage and the utilized pieces are mostly bright, saturated reds (Marean et al. 2007; Watts 2010). Grinding is the most common method of use and scoring is rare. There are likely sources of ochre between 5 and 10 km from the site (Watts 2010).The analyzed Middle Stone Age ochre collection at Klasies River, South Africa, consists of 314 pieces dated to between 110,000 and 60,000 years ago (Singer and Wymer 1982; Deacon 1995; Watts 1998). Most pieces are red and some of the pieces appear to have been intentionally heated (Dayet et al. 2017). Grinding use-traces or use-wear was found on some pieces, and there are a few pieces with clear engraved incisions (McBrearty and Brooks 2000; d’Errico et al. 2012a). A possible ochre source is up to 17 km away from the site.

The ochre assemblage from Blombos Cave, South Africa, comprises over 8,000 pieces from levels dating between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago (Henshilwood et al. 2001, 2009; Watts 2009). There is a possible ochre source ~35 km from the site, but ochre sources appear to have changed over time. The assemblage is mostly compiled of bright or saturated red pieces, although many colors are present (Henshilwood et al. 2009; Watts 2009), about 15 percent of which has signs of utilization. Fine-grained, bright-red pieces appear to have been preferentially chosen for use, especially for grinding activities (Watts 2009). Blombos has the earliest evidence of what is apparently deliberately engraved ochre as well as what appears to be “drawn art,” c. 75,000 years ago (Henshilwood et al. 2009, 2018). Ochre-processing toolkits were discovered in 100,000-year-old layers at Blombos, associated with grindstones and bone tools (Henshilwood et al. 2011). These toolkits, perlemoen or abalone shells, were used as mixing and storing containers in which compound ochre mixtures, possibly paints, were made. The mixtures consisted of red ochre powders, seal fat, charcoal, and other ingredients. It is not known how it was applied or on what.

Sibudu Cave, South Africa, has an ochre assemblage of over 9,000 pieces (5,449 pieces over 8 mm were analyzed; Hodgskiss 2012) in layers dated between 77,000 and 37,600 years ago. Bright red pieces predominate and were preferentially chosen for use. A possible source of ochre is 1 km from the site, but chemical analysis shows it may not have been the source exploited during the MSA. Pieces with evidence of use constitute 12.5 percent of the assemblage and a range of use-traces are found on the pieces—mostly from grinding, rubbing, and scoring activities (Hodgskiss 2013). Numerous objects at the site have ochre powder residues on them (Lombard 2007; Wojcieszak and Wadley 2018), suggesting a range of applications of the ochre powder. A stone tool was found with red ochre paint mixed with casein, a milk product (Villa et al. 2015). Rose Cottage Cave was excavated by numerous researchers and some discrepancies exist in the number of ochre pieces found there, but over 600 pieces have been analyzed (Hodgskiss and Wadley 2017; Watts 1998, 2002). There are traces of utilization on at least 10 percent of the pieces, mostly from rubbing, grinding, and rare cases of scoring. Bright red pieces are common and were preferentially used.

The ochre collection at Klein Kliphuis, South Africa, consists of 919 pieces (Mackay and Welz 2008). An engraved and ground ochre piece was found in layers dated to between 66,000 and 58,000 years ago (Mackay and Welz 2008). There are 356 analyzed pieces of ochre from Klipdrift Shelter, South Africa (Henshilwood et al. 2014). A vast majority of the pieces are red, and evidence of utilization is apparent on 17.5 percent of the pieces—mostly from knapping and grinding activities. The analyzed ochre assemblage from Diepkloof Rock Shelter contains 558 pieces of red- and brown-hued ochre and an ochre-stained lower grindstone, dated to layers between 110,000 and 52,000 years old. Use-traces are found on 16 percent of the pieces (Dayet et al. 2013). The utilized pieces have all been ground and some have also been knapped; only two pieces have possible scraping or scoring (Dayet et al. 2013).

Some other South African sites with ochre assemblages (some of the sites have not been re-excavated, but only their collections re-analyzed) are Apollo 11 (Wendt 1972; Vogelsang 1998), Border Cave (Beaumont et al. 1978), Die Kelders (Thackeray 2000), Hoedjiespunt (Will et al. 2013), Hollow Rock Shelter (Evans 1994), Mwulu Cave (de la Peña 2018), Olieboompoort (Watts 1998, 2002), Wonderkrater (Backwell et al. 2014), Wonderwerk (Beaumont and Vogel 2006; Watts et al. 2016), and Zombepata (Cooke 1971). Ochre is often found in western Cape coast shell middens (Parkington 2003).

Excavations at Porc Epic Cave in Ethiopia revealed 4,213 pieces of ochre, 3,792 of which were analyzed (Rosso et al. 2014). The pieces date to between 41,000 and 33,000 years ago. There is a range of raw materials, and reds and dark reds are most common in the assemblage. Almost half the assemblage has signs of utilization, especially flaking and grinding use-traces, and there is rare evidence of scraping or scoring. There is further evidence of ochre processing implements, including grindstones and a possible stamping implement (Rosso et al. 2016). Four unmodified pieces of red and yellow ochre were found in ~100,000-year-old layers at Es-Skhul in Israel (d’Errico et al. 2010; Salomon et al. 2012). A geological source of some of the pieces appears to be at least 80 km from the site (Salomon et al. 2012). Two of the pieces were possibly intentionally heated (d’Errico et al. 2010; Salomon et al. 2012).

At Qafzeh Cave in Israel, seventy-one pieces of ochre were found in layers dating to around 90,000 years ago (Hovers et al. 2003). Some of the pieces have scoring (or scraping) on the surface, and there is evidence of grinding and rubbing on some pieces (Hovers et al. 2003). Red, soft, silty, and clayey ochre pieces are most common and preferentially used in the assemblage, with yellow pieces extremely rare even though it is available locally (Hovers et al. 2003; Bar-Yosef Mayer et al. 2009). Chemical analyses suggest that some of the ochre pieces may have been deliberately heat-treated (Godfrey-Smith and Ilani 2004). The ochre was possibly transported 8–60 km from its source to the cave (Hovers et al. 2003; Bar-Yosef Mayer et al. 2009). Ochre pieces and ochre powder residues on perforated sea shells were found with human burials in the ~92,000-year-old layers (Bar-Yosef Mayer et al. 2009).

Ochre Pieces: Use-Traces and Activities

Unused ochre pieces are most common at MSA sites, with most ochre assemblages containing between only 10 percent and 20 percent of pieces with signs of use. Even the unused pieces are mostly manuports, rarely occurring naturally in the shelters and sites. It appears that pieces were collected and further selection of the desired types of ochre was performed at sites. The use-traces demonstrate the processing techniques used and therefore the activities the ochre pieces were used for.

Utilization markings or use-traces come in the form of a range of marks on the surface of the piece. Identifying these traces (often done microscopically) allows for the identification of how the piece was used. Experimental use of ochre and manganese pieces and detailed descriptions of the types of use-traces different activities produce (e.g., Soressi and d’Errico 2007; Soressi et al. 2008; Hodgskiss 2010; Rifkin 2012) have helped the identification of use-traces found on ancient ochre pieces.

Markings from grinding is the most common use-trace type found on ochre pieces in many of the MSA assemblages, where striated surfaces are found, sometimes with faceting (Watts 2002; Wadley 2005a; Hodgskiss 2010; Rifkin 2012) (fig. 2).

Ochre Use in the Middle Stone Age

Figure 2. Grinding use-traces on ochre pieces created during ochre use experiments. Grinding causes parallel striations (a), but adjustments in grip of the piece and protrusions on the surface of the grindstone cause shifts in striation direction as well as erratic striations (b), which may look like scored incisions. (c) Faceted surfaces that have formed during grinding activities.

Grinding is performed by abrading an ochre piece on a hard, often rough and flattened rock or grindstone (see Hodgskiss 2010 and Rifkin 2012 for further descriptions on terminology). Grinding has been shown to be one of the most efficient ways to produce a fine colored powder, and crushing is also effective when the ochre piece itself is not hard (i.e., hardness values Mohs 1–3). Many hematite and “iron oxide” pieces from MSA sites in South Africa are relatively hard, >Mohs 4, and grinding is a more effective way to produce a fine-grained powder for these pieces.

Crayon-shaped pieces can be defined as intensively ground faceted pieces that converge to a point (fig. 2c). They have been found at numerous late Pleistocene sites (e.g., Mason 1962; Beaumont et al. 1978; Singer and Wymer 1982; Watts 1998; Henshilwood et al. 2001, 2009; Wadley 2005a; Soressi and d’Errico 2007; Soressi et al. 2008; Hodgskiss and Wadley 2017). Some of these pieces may have been used as the name suggests—as a crayon to draw linear marks on a surface. There is no direct evidence of drawn colored lines in the MSA apart from the drawn markings at Blombos found on a grindstone fragment (Henshilwood et al. 2018). Crayon-shaped pieces found at Pech-de-l’Azé I in France display polish and micro-faceting on the tip (d’Errico 2003; Soressi and d’Errico 2007). Experimental studies demonstrated that these were likely used on soft, decomposable materials such as leather, wood, or human skin, possibly to create decorative marks (d’Errico 2003; Soressi and d’Errico 2007). Further experimental work has shown that pieces of this shape, with facets, polish, and smoothing, also form during prolonged grinding (Wadley 2005a; Soressi and d’Errico 2007; Hodgskiss 2010). Hence, it is advised that intensively ground and faceted ochre pieces be thoroughly examined before concluding how they were used in the past.

Evidence of rubbing ochre pieces against soft materials, like skin or hide, results in the direct transferal of powder onto the material. The use-traces that form on the ochre pieces when used for rubbing activities are smoothing, micro-striations, and sometimes polish and microfacets (Soressi and d’Errico 2007; Hodgskiss 2010; Rifkin 2012) (fig. 3).

Ochre Use in the Middle Stone Age

Figure 3. Smoothing caused on a piece of ochre that was rubbed (dry) on human skin.

Rubbing may be difficult to identify because post-depositional processes cause smoothing. Rubbing has been identified at a number of late Pleistocene sites, and some pieces have evidence that ground surfaces were rubbed on soft materials (Soressi and d’Errico 2007; Hodgskiss 2013), probably to increase the amount of powder that was transferred (Hodgskiss 2010) (fig. 4).

Ochre Use in the Middle Stone Age

Figure 4. Ochre piece that was ground, then broken into two pieces. The piece on the left has grinding use-traces, and the piece on the right has grinding use-traces that were then rubbed (dry) on human skin, causing the smoothing of the striations and the removal of micro striations.

Evidence of knapping ochre pieces comes in the form of flake scars, removals, or bulbs of percussion. It implies that an ochre piece was processed by knapping or hitting it with another stone to remove pieces, or that small flakes or pieces of ochre were deliberately removed from a larger core. Evidence of knapping has been identified in a number of ochre assemblages (Dayet et al. 2013; Henshilwood et al. 2014; Rosso et al. 2014), but this use-trace is indistinguishable or disguised on soft, friable pieces. Ochre pieces have been used in stone knapping as well, where they have been reportedly used as abraders and soft hammers during the manufacture of bifacial points at Sibudu (Soriano et al. 2009).

Sibudu, Blombos, and Klipdrift have patches or lenses that appear to have been the result of intensive or repeated ochre processing (Wadley 2010; Magnus Haaland pers comm.). Ochre powder deposits at Sibudu were found on cemented hearths in layers dated to ~58,000 years ago, suggesting that the hardened surfaces were used either as receptacles for ochre powder or as work surfaces on which ochre was processed by grinding or crushing (Wadley 2010). With the increase of micromorphology sampling at archaeological sites, it has become evident that many tiny pieces of ochre and ochre powder, invisible to the naked eye, are often evident throughout sequences. The micro evidence and the fact that many MSA ochre assemblages already have relatively large proportions of small pieces or crumbs (e.g., Watts 1998, 2009; Dayet et al. 2013; Hodgskiss 2013) could indicate that pieces were also sometimes pulverized or crushed (with upper and lower grindstones). This would leave little or no evidence on the ochre pieces themselves and is an efficient way to produce ochre powder from soft ochre.

Pieces that have been scored, cut, incised, scratched, engraved, or scraped with a sharp tool are rare at most MSA sites (e.g., Watts 2002; Mackay and Welz 2008; Henshilwood et al. 2009; d’Errico et al. 2012a; Hodgskiss 2013; Hodgskiss and Wadley 2017). Terminologies to describe this use-trace vary (see Rifkin 2012 and Hodgskiss 2010 for terminologies and definitions), but it implies using a sharp tool to create an incision or mark on the surface of a piece (fig. 5).

Ochre Use in the Middle Stone Age

Figure 5. Striations on an ochre piece that were scored with the sharp edge of a stone tool. Each incision was made with multiple strokes, causing ends that are frayed.

The term “scored” can be used as a general grouping term for these marks, and within that group there are diverse types of marks, showing different intentions and actions. Looking at the placing of the marks and the tool used can help to distinguish these variations. Scraping or scratching implies the creation of repeated and randomly placed marks with a scraping tool rather than a pointed edge, but could also mean that the ochre piece was held and scraped against another implement or stone. Engraving implies deliberate, more careful actions where a sharp tool is used on the surface of a piece of ochre to create markings. Seemingly deliberately placed incisions or engravings are sometimes created in a pattern on the surface of the piece. The best example of this is the cross-hatched ochre piece from Blombos (Henshilwood et al. 2009), but engraved ochre pieces have been discovered at numerous MSA sites, such as Klein Kliphuis (Mackay and Welz 2008), Klasies (d’Errico et al. 2012a), Sibudu (Hodgskiss 2013), and Rose Cottage (Hodgskiss and Wadley 2017). The engraved designs in ochre and the engraved ostrich eggshell from Klipdrift and Diepkloof (Texier et al. 2010, 2013; Henshilwood et al. 2014) are often described as “art,” and social or symbolic meaning was attributed to these when they were made c. 100,000–60,000 years ago. It is likely that these deliberately engraved artifacts communicated meaning between people and were perhaps gift exchange items or notational devices (Henshilwood and d’Errico 2011; Wynn and Coolidge 2011; d’Errico et al. 2012a; Hodgskiss 2014). Scholars cannot currently decipher the meaning of the ochre engravings, but they can be confident that the engravings represent novel behavior and indicate some of the earliest evidence of the storage of information outside of the brain.

Ochre Powder: Applications and Interpretations

In the MSA, we find not only worked pieces of ochre, but also evidence of how the ochre powder was used. There are numerous uses of ochre and ochre powders, yet many of the applications and reasons for its use in the MSA are not known and may never be known. Ochre powder residues or ochre staining has been identified on various functional items such as grindstones, bone tools, and stone tools (Louw 1969; Carter et al. 1988; Avery et al. 1997; McBrearty and Brooks 2000; Thackeray 2000; Henshilwood et al. 2001; Gibson et al. 2004; Wadley et al. 2004, 2009; d’Errico et al. 2005; Lombard 2007; Rosso et al. 2014, 2016; Wojcieszak and Wadley 2018). The ochre-stained, polished bone tools from Blombos (Henshilwood et al. 2001; d’Errico and Henshilwood 2007) and a bone point from Border Cave (d’Errico et al. 2012b) were likely used as awls for piercing hides.

Residues and wear found on the working edges of some stone scrapers from Sibudu indicate that they appear to have been used to scrape hides with ochre (Williamson 2005; Wadley and Langejans 2014). Hide processing experiments have indicated that red ochre is more effective at preserving hides than yellow ochre, clay, or kaolin (Audouin and Plisson 1982; Rifkin 2011). Experimental accounts show that the iron-rich powder reverses the process of putrefaction as well as softens hides (Audouin and Plisson 1982; Rifkin 2011).

Ochre powder was used as an additive in hafting adhesives at several late Pleistocene sites (Audouin and Plisson 1982; Beyries and Inizan 1982; Ambrose 1998; Thackeray 2000; Gibson et al. 2004; Lombard 2007, 2008; Wadley et al. 2009; Shaham et al. 2010). Evidence of this comes in the form of ochre residues on the proximal and medial portions of stone tools, sometimes along with macro fractures indicating how the tool was used. Experimental manufacture of adhesives loaded with ochre powder has demonstrated its usefulness as an aggregate when mixed with other ingredients such as plant gum or resin and wax or fat (Allain and Rigaud 1986; Wadley 2005b; Wadley et al. 2009; Zipkin et al. 2014; Kozowyk et al. 2016). However, other aggregates can also be effective loading agents, inferring that the use of ochre was possibly not (only) for its usefulness in the mixture but also for its visual and potentially symbolic properties (Zipkin et al. 2014). The process of hafting with compound adhesives is complex and requires a high level of skill and knowledge (Wadley et al. 2009; Kozowyk et al. 2016).

Ochre powder, usually red, is found on perforated marine shell beads at numerous late Pliestocene sites in Africa, Europe, and the Levant (d’Errico et al. 2005, 2008, 2009, 2015; Vanhaeren et al. 2006, 2013; Bouzouggar et al. 2007; Bar-Yosef Mayer et al. 2009; d’Errico and Backwell 2016). The powder may have been placed directly on the beads to color them or the powder may have rubbed off on the shells during use (i.e., on ochre-stained hides or ochre-covered skin).

There are numerous ethnographic and early colonial traveler accounts of the cosmetic, hygienic, and ritualistic use of red ochres by indigenous African societies—including hunter-gatherers and herder communities (Rudner 1982; Rifkin et al. 2015). Accounts also document modern hunter-gatherers using ochre as an external medication or antibacterial agent (Peile 1979; Velo 1984) and also an iron supplement, which, some have suggested (Duarte 2014), may have been an iron supplement in the past. The Hamar in Southern Ethiopia, Masai in Kenya, and the OvaHimba in Namibia and Angola are well known for their use of red ochres (Tönjes 1911; Lydell and Strecker 1979; Rifkin et al. 2015). The OvaHimba in Namibia use the ochre paste primarily for ritual purposes, but it also fulfills the role of sun protection. Experimental and ethnographic studies have shown that making a paste with ochre powder (in this case collected from sources in the Kunene region of Namibia) with various substances, such as animal fat, is effective for use as both a sunscreen and insect repellent (Rifkin 2015; Rifkin et al. 2015). The studies determined that red ochre mixtures have higher SPF values than yellow ochres (Rifkin et al. 2015). Red ochre is still used as a sunscreen in many regions of South Africa by, for example, isiZulu and isiXhosa speakers (personal observation), where it is often mixed with water, but sometimes with aqueous cream or glycerine (Hodgskiss and Wadley 2017). In the MSA, this may have been an important factor in the spread of humans around the world, as people were then able to travel further distances in harsh conditions and exploit wider resource ranges without harmful exposure to the sun. This coincides with the first evidence of ostrich eggshell use (sometimes also engraved), which were likely used as water containers (Texier et al. 2010, 2013; Henshilwood et al. 2014).

Symbolism, Meaning, and Cognitive Abilities

The preference to use bright or strong red pieces, often with shiny, micaceous inclusions, suggests that this is a likely reason for the choice of a piece, yet the color could also indicate a certain mineral quality of powder and fulfill specific practical applications. Red is a powerful color that, for humans living in modern society, holds strong symbolic signals. Red is the color of blood, therefore a potential symbol of life, death, love, coming-of-age, fertility, or a successful hunt. The use of red in the past is often linked to symbolic behaviors or ritual (Knight et al. 1995; Power and Aiello 1997; Henshilwood et al. 2009; Watts 2002, 2009, 2010; Hovers et al. 2003; Marean et al. 2007; Henshilwood and Dubreuil 2009). Basic color words, common to all languages, arose in a regular sequence—black and white followed by red—thus making red the first true color represented (Berlin and Kay 1969). This has been used to support the view that the same color definitions and neuropsychology would have been present in humans with cognitively complex capabilities (Wreschner 1980; Hovers et al. 2003; d’Errico et al. 2010; Verrelli and Tishkof 2004). These capabilities are suggested by the range of innovative technologies and behavioral advances seen in the MSA.

Ochre-related activities have been used to help confirm the cognitive capabilities of its users by establishing thought-and-action sequences and inferential cognitive sequences (Botha 2008; Wynn 2009; Haidle 2010; Lombard and Haidle 2012; Hodgskiss 2014), which help determine the complexity of tasks and cognitive requirements. Investigations have shown that many ochre-related activities evidenced in the MSA required enhanced executive functioning abilities (Wadley et al. 2009; Wynn 2009; Wynn and Coolidge 2011; d’Errico et al. 2012a; Wadley 2013; Hodgskiss 2014), such as attention-switching, response inhibition, analogical reasoning, and abstract thought.

What Ochre Use in the Middle Stone Age Tells Us

There are many uses of ochre that are probably no longer visible in the archaeological record, as well as many meanings which may never be known. Did bright red pieces have specific meanings to the MSA users, or was ochre chosen for its mineral qualities, or both? Were engraved designs imbued with meaning that functions within the society in which they were created? It is undeniable that time was invested in the collection, processing, and use of ochre and ochre powder. Using critical analyses, sound modern analogies, and experimental evidence helps our understanding of its potential uses in the past. We can assume that specific quality ochres would be desired for certain applications (e.g., for a paste to use on human skin or to make paint), and one would choose a fine-grained ochre or a certain hue of ochre, whereas to tan hide or for use as a sunscreen, different types of ochre may be more effective. These various factors make it difficult to interpret why ochre was used in the past, but it is likely that ochre had a range of uses, both practical and symbolic, possibly also showing the earliest signs of expression of cultural, social, and individual identities.

The habitual collection and processing of bright red ochre at archaeological sites and the deliberate engraving of designs on ochre pieces has come to signify complex behavior involving ritual, symbolism, and language. Understanding the various potential applications and uses of red ochre in the past, the procedures, knowledge, and skills required to perform those activities is a further indictor that people in the MSA, possibly at 100,000 years ago, likely had cognitive capabilities similar to humans living in the 21st century.

Further Reading

Dayet, Laure, Pierre-Jean Texier, Floréal Daniel, and Guillaume Porraz. 2013. “Ochre Resources from the Middle Stone Age Sequence of Diepkloof Rock Shelter, Western Cape, South Africa.” Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (9): 3492–3505.Find this resource:

Dayet, Laure, Sarah Wurz, and Floréal Daniel. 2017. “Ochre Resources, Behavioral Complexity and Regional Patterns in the Howiesons Poort: New Insights from Klasies River Main Site, South Africa.” Journal of African Archaeology 15 (1): 20–41.Find this resource:

d’Errico, Francesco. 2008. “Le rouge et le noir: Implications of Early Pigment Use in Africa, the Near East and Europe for the Origin of Cultural Modernity.” South African Archaeological Society Goodwin Series 10: 168–174.Find this resource:

d’Errico, Francesco, Renata Garcia Moreno, and Riaan F. Rifkin. 2012. “Technological, Elemental and Colorimetric Analysis of an Engraved Ochre Fragment from the Middle Stone Age Levels of Klasies River Cave 1, South Africa.” Journal of Archaeological Science 39: 942–952.Find this resource:

Henshilwood, Christopher S., Francesco d’Errico, Karen L. van Niekerk, Yvan Coquinot, Zenobia Jacobs, Stein-Erik Lauritzen, Michel Menu, and Renata Garcia-Moreno. 2011. “A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa.” Science 334: 219–222.Find this resource:

Henshilwood, Christopher S., Francesco d’Errico, Karen van Niekerk, Laure Dayet, Alain Queffelec, and Luca Pollarolo. 2018. “An Abstract Drawing from the 73,000-Year-Old Levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa.” Nature 562: 115–118.Find this resource:

Henshilwood, Christopher S., Francesco d’Errico, and Ian Watts. 2009. “Engraved Ochres from Middle Stone Age Levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa.” Journal of Human Evolution 57: 27–47.Find this resource:

Hodgskiss, Tammy. 2010. “Identifying Grinding, Scoring and Rubbing Use-Wear on Experimental Ochre Pieces.” Journal of Archaeological Science 37 (12): 3344–3358.Find this resource:

Hodgskiss, Tammy. 2013. “Ochre Use in the Middle Stone Age at Sibudu, South Africa: Grinding, Rubbing, Scoring and Engraving.” Journal of African Archaeology 11 (1): 1–21.Find this resource:

Hovers, Erella, Shimon Ilani, Ofer Bar-Yosef, and Bernard Vandermeersch. 2003. “An Early Case of Color Symbolism: Ochre Use by Modern Humans in Qafzeh Cave.” Current Anthropology 44 (4): 491–522.Find this resource:

Lombard, Marlize. 2007. “The Gripping Nature of Ochre: The Association of Ochre with Howiesons Poort Adhesives and Later Stone Age Mastics from South Africa.” Journal of Human Evolution 53 (4): 406–419.Find this resource:

Mackay, Alex, and Aara Welz. 2008. “Engraved Ochre from a Middle Stone Age Context at Klein Kliphuis in the Western Cape of South Africa.” Journal of Archaeological Science 35: 1521–1532.Find this resource:

Rifkin, Riaan F., Laure Dayet, Alain Queffelec, Beverley Summers, and Marlize Lategan and Francesco d’Errico. 2015. “Evaluating the Photoprotective Effects of Red Ochre on Human Skin by in Vivo SPF Assessment: Implications for Human Evolution, Adaptation and Dispersal.” PLoS ONE 10 (9): e0136090.Find this resource:

Rosso, Daniela. E., Africa Pitarch Marti, and Francesco d’Errico. 2016. “Middle Stone Age Ochre Processing and Behavioral Complexity in the Horn of Africa: Evidence from Porc-Epic Cave, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia.” PLoS ONE 11 (11): e0164793.Find this resource:

Velo, Joseph. 1984. “Ochre as Medicine: A Suggestion for the Interpretation of the Archaeological Record.” Current Anthropology 25: 674.Find this resource:

Villa, Paola, Luca Pollarolo, Ilaria Degano, Leila Birolo, Marco Pasero, Cristian Biagioni, Katerina Douka, Roberto Vinciguerra, Jeannette J. Lucejko, and Lyn Wadley. 2015. “A Milk and Ochre Paint Mixture Used 49,000 Years Ago at Sibudu, South Africa.” PLoS ONE 10 (6): e0131273.Find this resource:

Wadley, Lyn. 2005. “Ochre Crayons or Waste Products? Replications Compared with MSA ‘crayons’ from Sibudu Cave, South Africa.” Before Farming 2005 (3): 1–12.Find this resource:

Wadley, Lyn. 2009. “Post-Depositional Heating May Cause Over-representation of Red-colored Ochre in Stone Age Sites.” The South African Archaeological Bulletin 64 (190): 166–171.Find this resource:

Wadley, Lyn, Tammy Hodgskiss, and Michael Grant. 2009. “Implications for Complex Cognition from the Hafting of Tools with Compound Adhesives in the Middle Stone Age, South Africa.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106 (24): 9590–9594.Find this resource:

Watts, Ian. 2002. “Ochre in the Middle Stone Age of Southern Africa: Ritualized Display or a Hide Preservative?” South African Archaeological Bulletin 57: 1–14.Find this resource:

Watts, Ian. 2009. “Red Ochre, Body-Painting, and Language: Interpreting the Blombos Ochre.” In The Cradle of Language, edited by Botha Rudolph, and Chris Knight, 62–92. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Watts, Ian. 2010. “The Pigments from Pinnacle Point Cave 13B, Western Cape, South Africa.” Journal of Human Evolution 59: 392–411.Find this resource:

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