Deluge of Atlantis

Deluge of Atlantis
Deluge of Atlantis

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Oldest artist's workshop in the world discovered

Oldest artist's workshop in the world discovered

Abalone shell after removal of quartzite grinder cobble and some
 of the ochre-rich deposit (Image: Science)

 Grind up some ochre, melt some bone-marrow fat, mix the lot with a splash of urine – and paint your body with it. It sounds like an avant-garde performance but it may have happened some 100,000 years ago, in the oldest known artist's workshop – a cave in South Africa. The complex pigments that humans mixed there, and the tools they used to do it, are revealing just how cunning some of our earliest ancestors were.
The purpose of the paint is unknown, but the researchers who discovered the workshop at the Blombos cave on South Africa's southern coast think it was most likely applied to skin for decoration or ritual, or perhaps even as an insect repellent.
Inside the cave, Christopher Henshilwood of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and his team found tools and two abalone shells that were used for mixing and storing the paint. Alongside one of them were quartzite stones used to hammer and grind ochre to a powder, and animal bones used to stir the powder with other materials, which included bone, charcoal, quartz fragments and other stones.
They also discovered evidence that some of the bones had been heated, probably to melt fat from the marrow that would have then bound the minerals. "There were also quartzite fragments to cement it, mixed with a liquid, probably urine," says Henshilwood.
The whole lot survived together in one place because after the cave was abandoned it filled with wind-blown sand, sealing the cache as a "time capsule", says Henshilwood.

Early planners

Whatever our ancestors did with their paint, the simple fact that they were mixing minerals to prepare it 100,000 years ago is in itself a major discovery, and tells us something about our ancestors' cognitive abilities at the time.
For instance, Henshilwood points out that this is the first known use of containers from that time. What's more, the artists would have had to collect ochre and other materials with the specific purpose of making paint in mind – a sign that they were planners – and needed a "basic knowledge of chemistry".
The nearest known source of ochre, he says, is at least 20 kilometres away from the cave, so the find demonstrates that Homo sapiens was capable of this high degree of organisation and planning only 50,000 to 100,000 years after the species emerged.
"It's quite simply stunning, first-rate work, and unambiguously dated," says Paul Pettitt, an anthropologist at the University of Sheffield, UK.
"What takes this into the stratosphere is the degree of organisation, of intent and of industry," he says. "It's highly thought out, and repeated, so this is a systematic production of paint."

Art or body art?

Could the paint have been used for murals rather than as body paint? Possibly, but no ancient painting has been discovered nearby. A few years ago, also in Blombos cave, the same team did find 13 engraved tablets of ochre, each about 2 centimetres square, bearing leaf-like or hatched designs. They are the same age as the abalone shells, and may have been some of the earliest lipstick.
Pettitt says that the earliest unambiguous art was made around 35,000 years ago, in the Chauvet caves of south-east France, and the earliest evidence of ochre pigment production dates from 60,000 years ago. The new Blombos find, however, shows that early humans were capable both of organised activity and of creatively making and using pigments much earlier than we knew before.
Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1211535

The entrance of Blombos cave on the coast of the Indian Ocean
(Image: Magnus Haaland)

An abalone shell before excavation, with an ochre-coloured grindstone
 on the shell lip (Image: Science/AAAS)

Abalone shell after removal of quartzite grindstone; the red deposit is the
 ochre-rich mixture that was in the shell and preserved
under the cobble grinder (Image: Grethe Moell Pedersen)

A slightly friable, weathered flake of reddish-brown coarse siltstone deliberately flaked off a larger piece of ochre. Adjacent to the striking platform, three flakes had been removed prior to the piece being struck, perhaps to assist with producing an elongated flake. Prior to this removal the dorsal surface of the flake (shown here) had been ground to produce a convex facet. Two groups of incisions, one on the centre and one close to the edge, were subsequently marked on this facet (also prior to the flake being struck). In the centre of the piece, two joining lines form a "Y" that was engraved first, and this is crossed by a few perpendicular parallel lines. On the right-hand edge the lines are parallel and were originally longer until terminated by the flake fracture. Three incisions cross these lines made after the first set. Variations in the profiles of the lines within the two groups indicate that different tools may have been used for each group (Image: Fig 3, Journal of Human Evolution, vol 57, p 27)

These early Africans were genuinely precocious. They were already not only gathering deep-sea shellfish and presumably using dugout canoes and rafts, they were fashioning such devices as bone harpoon heads, fishhooks and fish gorges. They were starting to wear jewelry made out of seashells strung on strings. They were already starting to do actual mining of the red ochre and constructing circular structure-footings in caves (we do not know what materials were used for the structures above the footings, but the footings look like hut foundations). There is some indication they were already moving out of Africa and some of the populations were already breaking up into the streal that would become South Asians, Australians and Pacific Islanders on the one hand, and Europeans, North-Asians and American Natives on the other. Furthermore there is some evidence for their grinding plant foods on stone grinders, implying that they may already have started regularly growing basic crops such as roots (Yams) of various kinds; and there is evidence from DNA of domesticated dogs that they may have already domesticated dogs in Africa at this time. Therefore it is probable that the first migrants out of Africa could already have had knowledge of such things, and that when the Australian Aboriginals made the crossing over to Australia on rafts and dugouts, it was with technology that had already been developed in Africa at the beginnings of modern humans. This cultural level in general only reached Europe much later, after 40000 years ago, but there is some evidence of an attempted entry into Europe about 100000 years ago, only it was rebuffed by the Neanderthals then in possession of the continent.
Best Wishes, Dale D.

No comments:

Post a Comment

This blog does NOT allow anonymous comments. All comments are moderated to filter out abusive and vulgar language and any posts indulging in abusive and insulting language shall be deleted without any further discussion.