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  • The findings show how red pigment ochre was used.
  • Two separate tool kits for working ochre were found at the site.
  • The findings represents an important benchmark in the evolution of complex human mental processes.
art studio

A tiny cave on the South African coast has yielded the earliest evidence of an artist’s studio — a processing workshop where a liquefied ochre-rich mixture was produced 100,000 years ago.

Christopher Henshilwood from the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and colleagues found the ochre-rich mixture stored in two abalone shells at Blombos Cave on the southern Cape Coast, east of Cape Town, South Africa.

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Along with the shells, the researchers found tools such as bones, charcoal, grindstones and hammerstones.

The material shows that 100,000 years ago “humans had the conceptual ability to source, combine and store substances that were then possibly used to enhance their social practices,” the researchers write in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.

The ochre was possibly used for decoration, painting and skin protection, said the researchers.

In the past three years the findings underwent detailed analysis and Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating.

“The analysis of the residues in the shell, on the tools and the pieces of ochre has allowed us to reconstruct the function of the tools involved and evaluate the degree of behavioral complexity implicit in the process. We were also able to reconstruct the recipe to produce the pigment,” second author Francesco D’Errico, director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS),told Discovery News.

The researchers believe that pieces of ochre were first rubbed on quartzite slabs to produce a fine red powder.

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“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,” Henshilwood said.

A bone was probably used to stir the mixture and to transfer it out of the shell as with a painter spalula.

According to Erella Hovers, an archaeologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the finding confirms the hypothesis that the production and use of ochre were a complex process that involved forethought and planning.

“Bits and pieces attesting to various phases of the process have been found independently and separately in various sites in and out of Africa at comparable ages, but to the best of my knowledge this is the first time that the whole process can be reconstructed,” Hovers told Discovery News.

Most interestingly, the Blombos elaborate ochre processing used a mixture with marrow fat to produce a paint rather than with plant resin to produce a mastic, Alison Brooks, professor of anthropology at George Washington University in Washington DC, noticed.

“This argues strongly for its symbolic function,” Brooks told Discovery News.

For more than 20 years, Blombos Cave has been yelding bone tools and artefacts left by its Middle Stone Age inhabitants. In 2002, researchers found 70,000-year-old blocks of ochre with abstract engravings, suggesting the emergence of abstract thinking and modern human behaviour much earlier than previously thought.

“The recovery of these toolkits adds evidence for early technological and behavioural developments associated with humans and documents their deliberate planning, production and curation of pigmented compound and the use of containers,” said Henshilwood.

“It also demonstrates that humans had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning 100,000 years ago,”he concluded.

  • A pair of skeletons still holding hands was found recently in Italy.
  • The man and woman were buried at the same time between the 5th and 6th century.
lover skeletons


Two skeletons found in central-northern Italy reveal the couple was buried holding hands some 1,500 years ago. Click to enlarge this image.
Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici dell’Emilia-Romagna

The skeletal remains of a Roman-era couple reveal the pair has been holding hands for 1,500 years.

Italian archaeologists say the man and woman were buried at the same time between the 5th and 6th century A.D. in central-northern Italy. Wearing a bronze ring, the woman is positioned so she appears to be gazing at her male partner.

“We believe that they were originally buried with their faces staring into each other. The position of the man’s vertebrae suggests that his head rolled after death,” Donato Labate, the director of the excavation at the archaeological superintendency of Emilia-Romagna, told Discovery News.

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The tender discovery was made during ordinary construction work in Modena and was announced this week. Labate explained the dig revealed three layers of scientific interest.

The deeper layer, some 23 feet below the surface, contained the remains of Roman-era structures, including a calcara where mortar was produced. The ruins belonged to the suburbs of Modena, then called Mutina.

“A middle layer, at a depth of about 10 feet, featured 11 burials, while a third stratification on top of the necropolis, revealed seven empty tombs,” Labate said.

Excavated by archaeologist Licia Diamanti, the skeleton couple belonged to the 11 tomb necropolis. According to Labate, the simple fossa (trench) tombs suggest that the people buried there were not particularly rich.

“They were possibly the inhabitants of a farm,” Labate said.

The area was subjected to several floods from the nearby river Tiepido — which may have caused the male skeleton’s skull to roll away from the female skeleton after burial. The necropolis was covered by alluvial deposits, and on top of them, another seven tombs were built.

“These burials were empty. Most likely, they were covered by another flood just after their construction. We think it was a catastrophic flood which occurred in 589, as reported by the historian Paul the Deacon,” Labate said.

The two skeletons, which are poorly preserved, will be now studied by Giorgio Gruppioni, an anthropologist at the University of Bologna. The research includes establishing the couple’s age, their relationship and the possible cause of death.

“In antiquity, it is not surprising to learn of spouses or members of a family dying at the same time: whenever epidemics such as the Black Plague ravaged Europe, one member of the family would often die while the family was trying to bury another member,” Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, told Discovery News.

In 2007 another skeleton couple, buried between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, was found at a neolithic site near Mantua, just 25 miles south of Verona, where Shakespeare set the romantic story of Romeo and Juliet.

Locked in a tender embrace, they also looked at one another in apparent defiance of time and decay.

“The two couples are separated in time by five millennia, and both evoke an uplifting tenderness. I have been involved in many digs, but I’ve never felt so moved,” Labate said.

According to Killgrove, the positioning of the Modena skeletons, looking at one another and holding hands, indeed suggests they may have been a couple.

“Whoever buried these people likely felt that communicating their relationship was just as important in death as it was in life,” Killgrove said.


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