Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
[ E-mail ]

Contact: Science Press Package
American Association for the Advancement of Science

The world's first art studio?

Abalone shell, Tk1-S1, in laboratory after removal of the quartzite grinder cobble and some of the ochre rich deposit. The cut sand area is where a sample was removed for analysis.
[Image © Science/AAAS]

One of the earliest forms of paint is known as ochre—and it really wasn't much more than colorful dirt. But, researchers believe that early humans may have used this colorful ochre to decorate their bodies or to make simple pieces of artwork.

Now, researchers in South Africa have discovered a 100,000-year-old workshop that early humans used to make, mix and store their ochre. This finding is so important because most of the evidence for ochre use that has been discovered so far only dates back to 60,000 years ago. So, this newly discovered ochre workshop means that early humans were not only using ochre much earlier than we thought—but they were also involved in its production and long-term storage.

Christopher Henshilwood and colleagues, who made the discovery at Blombos Cave in South Africa, say that this ability of the early Homo sapiens to combine and store ochre represents an important step in the evolution of human thinking. Their report appears in the 14 October issue of the journal Science.

The ancient art studio they found was littered with hammers and grindstones for making ochre powder. But, the researchers also found two abalone, or sea snail, shells that had once been used to store a red, ochre-rich powder. Henshilwood and his colleagues suggest that the breathing holes in the abalone shells might have been plugged so that the shells could be used as storage containers.

There's no immediate way to tell what the ochre was used for, but these findings do demonstrate that early humans in Africa already had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning.