|Color was mixed in this 100,000-year-old shell.|
A hundred thousand years ago, not long after Homo sapiens emerged as a species, a craftsman - or woman - sat in a cave overlooking the Indian Ocean, crushed a soft rusty red rock, mixed it inside a shell with charcoal and animal marrow, and dabbed it on something - maybe a face, maybe a wall.
Before the person left, he or she stacked the shell and grindstones in a neat pile, where they lay undisturbed for a hundred millennia.
Unearthed in 2008 and described Friday in the journal Science, these paint "toolkits," researchers say, push deeper into human history evidence for artistic impulses and complex, planned behavior.
"They probably understood basic chemistry," said Christopher Henshilwood, the archaeologist who led the discovery team.
Traces of paint on the tools show that the cave dwellers mixed ocher - red or yellow minerals that contain metal oxides - with marrow from bones, charcoal, flecks of quartz and a liquid, probably water. Paint experts at the Louvre in Paris performed the analysis.
With ground ocher as the base, the marrow and charcoal acted as binders. The quartz could have made the compound sticky, while water - in the right amount - provided the proper consistency.
The cave, called Blombos, sits in a cliff on the coast of South Africa about 180 miles east of Cape Town. It shows signs of human use starting 130,000 years ago. The discovery adds to other early artistic treasures at Blombos, including 49 beads smeared with ocher and large pieces of ocher inscribed with cross-hatch patterns that date to 77,000 years ago - widely recognized as the oldest known art.
The cave walls show no paintings, but quickly accreting limestone would have obscured any obvious signs, Henshilwood said.
This article appeared on page A - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle
By Brian Vastag, Washington Post
Friday, October 14, 2011