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49,000-Year-Old Paint Found on Stone

Thursday, July 9, 2015

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BOULDER, CO--An international team of researchers has discovered a milk- and ochre-based paint dating back 49,000 years that South African inhabitants may have used to decorate their bodies as well as stone or wooden slabs.

This is the first time a paint containing ochre and milk has been found in association with early humans in South Africa, according to Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and lead study author.

stone with paint mixture
University of Colorado Museum of Natural History

The research team discovered the powdered paint mixture residue on the edge of a small stone flake in a layer of Sibudu Cave, a rock shelter in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Africa.

The use of ochre—a natural pigment containing iron oxide than can range from yellow and orange to red and brown—by early humans dates to at least 250,000 years ago in Europe and Africa.

Details of the discovery were recently published online in the journal PLOS One.

Milk Mixture Discovery

The team discovered the powdered paint mixture residue on the edge of a small stone flake in a layer of Sibudu Cave, a rock shelter in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Africa, the museum explained in a research announcement.

The scientists say the shelter had been occupied by anatomically modern humans in the Middle Stone Age from roughly 77,000 years ago to about 38,000 years ago.

The dried paint indicates that the flake may have been used as a mixing tool to combine ochre and milk, or as an applicator, according to Villa.

eland
©iStock.com / ajbalmain

The milk used in the paint mixture was likely obtained by killing lactating members of the bovid family such as buffalo, eland (bull pictured), kudu and impala.

The milk for the paint was likely obtained by killing lactating members of the bovid family such as buffalo, eland, kudu and impala, Villa said.

“Although the use of the paint still remains uncertain, this surprising find establishes the use of milk with ochre well before the introduction of domestic cattle in South Africa,” said Villa. “Obtaining milk from a lactating wild bovid also suggests that the people may have attributed a special significance and value to that product.”

Cattle were not domesticated in South Africa until 1,000 to 2,000 years ago, she said.

Possible Uses

While ochre powder production and its use are documented in a number of Middle Stone Age South African sites, there has been no evidence of the use of milk as a chemical binding agent until this discovery, according to Villa.

The team used several high-tech chemical and elemental analyses to verify the presence of casein, the major protein of milk, on the stone.

Himba woman
Yves Picq / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The modern Himba people in Namibia mix ochre with butter as a coloring agent for skin, hair and leather clothing, according to Villa.

Scientists have postulated that ochre was sometimes combined by ancient Africans with resin or plant gum to use as an adhesive for attaching shafts to stone tools or wooden bone handles, Villa said.

Villa said the paint mixture may have been used to preserve animal hides and for body paint.

Body painting is widely practiced by the indigenous San people in South Africa and is depicted in ancient rock art.

While there are no ethnographic precedents for mixing ochre with milk as a body paint, the modern Himba people in Namibia mix ochre with butter as a coloring agent for skin, hair and leather clothing, Villa said.

The Team, Site

The study’s co-authors were from the Italian Institute of Paleontology in Rome; the University of Geneva in Switzerland; the University of Pisa in Italy; the University of Monte St. Angelo in Naples, Italy; and the University of Oxford in England.

The excavation was directed by Professor Lyn Wadley of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Wadley was also a paper co-author.

   

Tagged categories: Coating chemistry; Formulating; Milk-based paints; Paint application; Research; Stone

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