Imagine Africa: World’s Most Ancient Painters

October 27, 2011

100,000 year old abalone shells containing ochre-based pigments.

Imagine the world’s oldest painting kit. Last week, Science Magazine published an article on the 2008 archaeological discovery of two 100,000-year-old abalone shells that contain traces of the first known mixed paint. A team of researchers led by Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergin, Norway excavated the shells in the Blombus Cave at the edge of the Indian Ocean, 180 miles from Cape Town, South Africa. These shells are believed to evidence the mixing, storing, and production of ochre-based pigment that predates any other pigment production by some 40,000 years.[1] Although Homo sapiens evolved 200,000 years ago, this discovery indicates a much earlier milestone in the development of complex human cognition during the Middle Stone Age period.

A view of Blombus Cave where the paint "kits" were found.
Location of Blombus Cave on South African coast.

In a podcast interview with Science, Henshilwood describes how the two abalone shells were found under approximately 2.5 meters of deposit, about 30 centimeters apart from each other, along with several tools used in the pigment production. The lack of other sorts of human detritus in the shells’ same stratigraphic level suggests to researchers that the cave was occupied for very short amount of time for the sole purpose of producing the pigment. Each shell contained the same reddish, ochre-based mixture, indicating a planned recipe was followed to produce the pigments.

The interior of Blombos Cave at the time of the discovery of the 100,000-year-old toolkits. Christopher Henshilwood on right, colleague Grethe Pedersen in foreground. Image courtesy Science/AAAS

Analysis of the pigment also revealed that two other paint ingredients were charcoal and animal fat extracted from a charred bone also found at the site. Most spectacularly, however, sand in the paint has miraculously preserved the actual trace of the finger that once stirred the pigment outlined on the nacre at the bottom of the abalone shell.  Finally, found along with the rest of the paint “toolkit” paraphernalia was a small bone, of which only the very end was covered in pigment, suggesting that it was used to transfer small quantities of the mixture to some other surface.

See the Popular Archaeology site for an interesting video.

[1] Wilford, John Noble. “In African Cave, Signs of an Ancient Paint Factory” in The New York Times. October 13, 2011.