Cavemen Used Milk Used to Bind Ochre Paint 49,000 Years Ago

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The stone flake with ochre stains, dated to 49,000 years agoCredit: University of Colorado at Boulder

Prehistoric man's use of ochre, whether to paint the body or cave, goes back at least a quarter of a million years. Now scientists have discovered evidence in a South African cave that the binder ancient men used to make the paint was milk, even though bovines would only be domesticated tens of thousands of years later.

Most likely the ancient humans living in Sibudu Cave took the milk from lactating female antelopes they hunted down, suggests the international research team led by the University of Colorado and the University of Witwatersrand.

The milk component was identified by chemical analysis that found the milk protein casein on a small stone flake bearing ochre paint.

Whether or not the ancient cavemen had captive beasts is not known, but the evidence indicates that in South Africa, bovines were apparently only domesticated between 2,000 to 1,000 years ago, according to Paola Villa, curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and the lead study author: in fact the first known documentation of domestication in South Africa dates from 300 AD.

That is rather late. Evidence in the Near East and China indicates that the process of domesticating cattle went back more than 10,000 years, which is roughly when man is believed to have begun to abandon the nomadic lifestyle and settle down.

In any case, the milk found binding the ochre paint in Sibudu Cave, a rock shelter in northern KwaZulu-Natal, didn't have to come from a captive animal. It could have come from a hunted kudu or eland, for instance, suggest the scientists.

The paint-milk compound was found on a small stone flake that may have been used to mix or apply the paint, Villa suggests. "Our analyses show that this ochre-based mixture was neither a hafting adhesive nor a residue left after treating animal skins, but a liquid mixture consisting of a powdered pigment mixed with milk," writes the team in their PLOS ONE paper.

(University of Colorado at Boulder)

Ochre has been in use by hominins longer than anatomically modern man has even existed. Evidence has been found of its use in Europe and Africa a quarter of a million years ago, including by Neanderthals, for example at Maastricht-Belvédère, the Netherlands. Aside from postulated use in body art, for which the paint is used to this day (by peoples in South Africa), ancient man evidently used ochre as a food preservative, to tan hides, repel insects and for medicinal purposes – and possibly in glue as well, used for instance to make spears. Elaborately engraved ochre stones going back 75,000 years were found at Blomberg Cave, also in South Africa. The carvings could be seen as abstract art, which , some postulate, argues that "modern" human behavior began to develop in Africa at least 35,000 years before the start of the Upper Paleolithic era.

Elaborately engraved ochre lump found in Blombos Cave, believed to date back 75,000 years. (Chris. S. Henshilwood/Wikimedia Commons)

In Israel, among the older finds associated with ochre use are the hominid fossils discovered in Qafzeh rock shelter, in the Galilee, and the Es Skhul caves on Mt Carmel. The finds there were defined to be Palaeoanthropus palestinensis, a descendent of Homo heidelbergensis, which had a mix of archaic and modern characteristics and went back about 100,000 years ago. The finds at Qafzeh included ochre lumps and shells that had apparently been painted with the color.

As for ochre itself, the stuff itself is a natural earth pigment that can range in color from yellow to reddish, deep orange or brown, depending on its iron content. And whatever ancient man may have thought of its properties, it is not used in modern medical practice, except in certain areas of Chinese medicine – where practitioners warn pregnant women to watch out: red ochre decoctions may contain arsenic.

The flake before sampling. (University of Colorado at Boulder)

Sibudu Cave during excavation. (University of Colorado at Boulder)

Example of grooved ochre. (University of Colorado at Boulder)

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