100,000-year old art kit found in South Africa

The oldest ever evidence that early humans painted has been found in South Africa, in the form of two kits for mixing and forming ochre, a reddish pigment used to dye clothing, paint, and create face paint.

Ochre is a naturally occurring red stone that has been associated across the globe with early art, thanks to its ability to be painted on walls, skin, trees, or just about any surface.

This incredible find comes from Blombos Cave in Cape Town, South Africa pushes back the date of complex art significantly, as ochre previously had only been well documented around 60,000 BP.

The kits were two abalone shells, their breathing holes plugged so that they could be used to store the mixture. It contained ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones and hammerstones.

Professor Christopher Henshilwood from the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg said:

We believe that the manufacturing process involved the rubbing of pieces of ochre on quartzite slabs to produce a fine red powder. Ochre chips were crushed with quartz, quartzite and silcrete hammerstones/grinders and combined with heated crushed, mammal-bone, charcoal, stone chips and a liquid, which was then introduced to the abalone shells and gently stirred. A bone was probably used to stir the mixture and to transfer some of the mixture out of the shell.

What's really important about this discovery is not just that early humans were using an ochre for making markings, but also the degree of planning, preparation and storage involved. The kit reveals that objects were taken from different locations, brought together and perhaps traded, then stored in specially crafted containers. It is evidence of long term planning, curation, and even of basic chemistry in order to successfully mix compounds.

While we don't know exactly what our ancestors were using this ochre for, it's an incredible discovery in terms of early human culture and development.

If you happen to be in Cape Town, the kits will be on display at the Iziko Museum there from Friday, 14 October 2011.