Painters' Heritage / by Jeannine Cook

Just in time for Thanksgiving, I learn from Science News of a reason to thank our ancestors again for artistic ventures.

Apparently, in that amazing archaeological treasure trove of very early man's life, Blombos Cave, along South Africa's coast, yet another indication of man's early artistic interests has been excavated. The engraved pieces of ochre, dating from some 80,000 years ago, have already been celebrated, and in fact, I blogged about them in August, 2010. Now, Dr. Christopher Henshilwood of Norway's University of Bergen has found a pair of tool kits which show that man, some 100,000 years ago, was already deliberately mixing chemicals to produce a pigment. Dr. Henshilwood and his colleagues have shown that these early inhabitants of South Africa were taking ochre chips, treated animal bones charcoal, quartz in granular form and some unidentifiable liquid and producing a form of paint. They were planning ahead, preparing pigment for a specific purppose, just as artists do today.


Among their finds, the archaeologists found this abalone shell which held this "paint", and an animal bone that had traces of red on it and which was spatula-shaped, perhaps to stir the paint and apply it. (Image courtesy of Science News.)

100,000 years is a long stretch back in time. To know that artistic activities - i.e. mark-making by deliberate pigment preparation - were already underway makes my mind really stretch. But it is a good stretch! And a reason to give thanks.