Caveman coatings formulators?
A newly unveiled cave in South Africa contains the rudiments of a lab for making protective or decorative paint, pushing back the invention of ancient formulations by about 40,000 years and crediting Stone Age man with higher-level thinking than he’d been accorded.
Although the coating recipe has changed—some of the early products may have included urine and bone—the discovery indicates that Stone Age humans had a grasp of chemistry that scientists had not previously thought possible.
The conclusions follow the discovery of what clearly appears to be a workshop, believed to be more than 100,000 years old, where early Homo sapiens made, mixed and stored iron-rich ochre pigment, Professor Christopher Henshilwood and his team reported Oct. 14 in the journal Science.
Grethe Moell Pedersen
|Two paint-making toolkits—abalone shells used to hold an ochre mixture—from 100,000 years ago suggest that early humans understood basic chemistry.|
Henshilwood, from the University of Bergen in Norway and University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, and his colleagues discovered two “toolkits,” in shell containers, for producing and storing an ochre-rich compound that also included bone and charcoal.
The team also found parts of animal bones that may have been used to mix or apply the compound. They also found the ground littered with hammers and grindstones for making ochre powder from earth and rock containing red or yellow oxides or hydroxides of iron.
The compound in both shells is believed to be identical, indicating that the early formulators were following a recipe—not dabbling at random. What’s more, the ochre was apparently brought from 20 kilometers away before it was mixed with melted fat from bone marrow and a fluid “that might be urine,” Nature News reported.
The discovery is not just aesthetic; it attests to much more sophisticated cognition by early humans than previously believed.
“This isn’t just a chance mixture; it is early chemistry,” Henshilwood told Nature News. “It suggests conceptual and probably cognitive abilities which are the equivalent of modern humans.”
The find also provides the earliest evidence yet for the use of containers, pre-dating previous examples by 40,000 years, says Henshilwood.
The discovery was made in 2008, but the international team has been working since then to study the findings and test its theories.
“We waited three years before publishing to make sure the analysis was right,” said Henshilwood in a statement. “I think we’ve established rather accurately that the reported contents of the shells are correct.”
Although the compound’s application “is not self-evident,” the team wrote in the article, it most likely was used as a protective or decorative coating for a surface.
“It shows that these people had the capacity for forward and deliberate planning, and it suggests they also had a basic understanding of chemistry—that things could be combined together to reach an end result,” said Henshilwood.
The team wrote: “The recovery of these toolkits at Blombos Cave adds evidence for early technological and behavioral developments associated with H. sapiens and documents their deliberate planning, production, and curation of a pigmented compound and the use of containers.
“H. sapiens thus also had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning.”