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Science: Early Ochre Workshop Represents Critical Point in Human Evolution

In South Africa, researchers have discovered a 100,000-year-old workshop that may have been used by early Homo sapiens to make, mix, and store ochre—the earliest form of paint.

The use of ochre, which is essentially just colorful dirt, has been well-documented after about 60,000 years ago. But these new findings show that early humans were using ochre much earlier than that, as well as producing and storing it.

Professor Christopher Henshilwood from the University of Bergen in Norway and University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, along with an international team of colleagues, discovered the ancient art studio in South Africa’s Blombos Cave in 2008. The cave was littered with hammers and grindstones for making ochre powder, and the researchers found two abalone, or sea snail, shells that had once been used to store a red, ochre-rich mixture that was combined with bone and charcoal.

Their study appears in the 14 October issue of the journal Science.

“We waited three years before publishing to make sure the analysis was right,” said Henshilwood. “I think we’ve established rather accurately that the reported contents of the shells are correct.”

There’s no immediate way of telling what the ochre was used for, but Henshilwood and his team suggest that early humans might have painted their bodies or designed simple works of art with it.

“The ochre was mixed together almost certainly with a finger, stirring gently,” said Henshilwood. “That left very small and soft impressions on the shell nacre where the finger made contact with quartz grains. We can see this action was repeated over and over again—with a little swirl at the end.”

The researchers suggest that respiratory holes in the abalone shells may have been plugged with organic matter, like grass or wood, so that the shells could be used as effective storage containers.

“The only other known evidence of storage containers in the Middle Stone Age is from Diepkloof Cave in South Africa, where researchers found ostrich eggs with small holes made in them,” Henshilwood said. “But that’s 40,000 years later. So, nowhere else in the world did we have any evidence of container use beyond that point.”


The nacre and inside of the Tk1 abalone shell after removal of the quartzite grindstone. The red deposit is the ochre rich mixture that was in the shell and preserved under the cobble grinder. | Image courtesy of Grethe Moell Pedersen; © Science/AAAS

According to the researchers, this conceptual ability to combine and store substances such as ochre represents a critical point in the evolution of human thinking. And these findings at Blombos Cave shed light on the cognitive skills of early Homo sapiens in Africa before they left for Asia sometime around 60,000 to 80,000 years ago.


“It shows that these people had the capacity for forward and deliberate planning, and it suggests they also had a basic understanding of chemistry—that things could be combined together to reach an end result,” said Henshilwood.

“We know that when early humans left Africa, they were already somewhat modern,” Henshilwood added. “They didn’t enter these new places without advanced cognition. They had the capacity for technology and probably rapidly adopted new technologies to cope with different circumstances.”

“I think that’s the key to why humans were able to expand to every corner of the globe.”


Read the abstract, “A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa,” by Christopher Henshilwood et al.

Listen to a related Science Podcast discussing the research.