Designs on pigment can be seen at the citation/cite.
Engraved pigments point to ancient symbolic tradition
Incisions on ochre from a South African cave suggest modern human
behavior emerged around 100,000 years ago
By Bruce Bower
Web edition : 1:03 pm
Line designsGeometric patterns incised on pieces of ancient pigment,
such as these 100,000-year-old finds, may reveal the surprisingly
ancient origins of modern human behavior.Courtesy of C. Henshilwood
and F. d’Errico
Scientists excavating a Stone Age cave on South Africa’s southern
coast have followed a trail of engraved pigments to what they suspect
are the ancient roots of modern human behavior.
Analyses of 13 chunks of decorated red ochre (an iron oxide pigment)
from Blombos Cave indicate that a cultural tradition of creating
meaningful geometric designs stretched from around 100,000 to 75,000
years ago in southern Africa, say anthropologist Christopher
Henshilwood of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and
his colleagues. Their report appears online and in an upcoming Journal
of Human Evolution.
Much debate surrounds the issue of when and where language, religion,
symbolic decorations and other facets of modern human behavior
originated. Researchers such as Henshilwood hypothesize that modern
human behavior developed gradually in Africa, beginning more than
100,000 years ago. Others posit that a brain-boosting genetic mutation
around 50,000 years ago fostered modern behavior in Africa. Some
researchers suspect that behavioral advances first appeared in Europe,
Asia and Africa at that later time.
Possible examples of symbolic behavior from around 100,000 years ago —
such as proposed human burials in the Middle East and pigment use in
Africa — have been controversial.
“What makes the Blombos engravings different is that some of them
appear to represent a deliberate will to produce a complex abstract
design,” Henshilwood says. “We have not before seen well-dated and
unambiguous traces of this kind of behavior at 100,000 years ago.”
Further studies need to confirm that the ancient incisions were not
the result of, say, slicing into ochre with stone tools in order to
remove powder quickly, cautions anthropologist Curtis Marean of
Arizona State University in Tempe, who studies ancient human behavior
at another South African cave (SN: 10/20/07, p. 243).
Even if the Blombos pigments contain intentional designs, fully modern
human behavior — such as the use of figurative art (SN: 6/20/09, p.
11) — didn’t emerge until tens of thousands of years later, contends
archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tuebingen, Germany.
Henshilwood and study coauthor Francesco d’Errico of the University of
Bordeaux I in Talence, France, disagree. In their view, the Blombos
pigments bear intentionally fashioned designs that held some sort of
meaning and were passed down the generations for 25,000 years. Thus,
the two researchers say, it’s likely that a 100,000-year-old society
already steeped in symbolic behavior originally produced the ochre
In 2002, Henshilwood’s team described evidence of symbolic engravings
on two other ochre pieces from Blombos Cave. Those 77,000-year-old
finds were excavated in 1999 and 2000.
Engraved chunks of pigment in the new analysis were unearthed during
the same excavations. Specimens came from either of three sediment
levels with estimated ages of 72,000 years, 77,000 years and 100,000
A microscopic analysis indicates that ochre designs were made by
holding a piece of pigment with one hand while impressing lines into
the pigment with the tip of a stone tool. On several pieces, patterns
covered areas that had first been ground down.
Geometric patterns on the ochre pieces include cross-hatched designs,
branching lines, parallel lines and right angles.
Pigment powder had also been removed from many of the recovered ochre
chunks. Incised patterns may have served as models for pigment designs
applied to animal skins or other material, the scientists speculate.
Excavations of Blombos Cave sediment from before 100,000 years ago
have begun. “The discovery of more, and perhaps even more striking,
engravings is very possible,” Henshilwood says.