“Oldest Artist’s Workshop in the World Discovered”

Archaeologists have discovered materials for mixing paint from 100,000 years ago, in a cave in South Africa. Keep in mind that homo sapiens only originated as an anatomically distinct species 200,000 years ago; this means that roughly halfway between the first homo sapiens and the present day, there were already painters. That’s pretty crazy.

From New Scientist:

The purpose of the paint is unknown, but the researchers who discovered the workshop at the Blombos cave on South Africa’s southern coast (see photo) think it was most likely applied to skin for decoration or ritual, or perhaps even as an insect repellent.

Inside the cave, Christopher Henshilwood of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and his team found tools and two abalone shells (see photos) that were used for mixing and storing the paint. Alongside one of them were quartzite stones used to hammer and grind ochre to a powder, and animal bones used to stir the powder with other materials, which included bone, charcoal, quartz fragments and other stones.

They also discovered evidence that some of the bones had been heated, probably to melt fat from the marrow that would have then bound the minerals. “There were also quartzite fragments to cement it, mixed with a liquid, probably urine,” says Henshilwood.

The whole lot survived together in one place because after the cave was abandoned it filled with wind-blown sand, sealing the cache as a “time capsule”, says Henshilwood.

Whatever our ancestors did with their paint, the simple fact that they were mixing minerals to prepare it 100,000 years ago is in itself a major discovery, and tells us something about our ancestors’ cognitive abilities at the time.

For instance, Henshilwood points out that this is the first known use of containers from that time. What’s more, the artists would have had to collect ochre and other materials with the specific purpose of making paint in mind – a sign that they were planners – and needed a “basic knowledge of chemistry”.

The nearest known source of ochre, he says, is at least 20 kilometres away from the cave, so the find demonstrates that Homo sapiens was capable of this high degree of organisation and planning only 50,000 to 100,000 years after the species emerged.

It’s pretty interesting to think of very ancient humans doing things that we think of as quintessentially human. If they could find evidence of painting from before the emergence of homo sapiens, that could be quite a shock to people who consider art a defining characteristic of our species (not that “art” or “species” are well defined anyway). 

I wish I had the knowledge to actually evaluate findings like this. On its surface it looks like a whole lot of conjecture, but I’m sure they have their ways of backing it up. 

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