Paint pots used by humans more than 100,000 years ago have been discovered in South Africa.
Archaeologists excavating the Blombos Cave have stumbled upon a hoard of art materials which include everything an ancient artist might have required to be creative.
Red and yellow pigments, shell containers and grinding cobbles and bone spatulas – to mix up a paste – were all present in the discovery that, researchers say, is proof that our early ancestors’ were more modern than once thought.
Professor Christopher Henshilwood, from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, who led the discovery team, said: ‘This discovery represents an important benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition.
‘It shows humans had the conceptual ability to source, combine and store substances that were then possibly used to enhance their social practices.
‘We believe 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.’
He said that the tool kits were evidence of early technological development, rudimentary knowledge of chemistry and long-term planning.
He added: ‘This is significant because it is pushing back the boundaries of our understanding of when Homo sapiens – people like us – first became modern.
‘These finds indicate that humans were certainly thinking in a modern way, in a way that is cognitively advanced, at least 100,000 years ago.’
The southern Cape Coast cave, situated 200 miles east of Cape Town, has provided scientists, who have been scraping through its sandy sediments, with a plethora of treasures since the early 1990s.
In 2002 they found 70,000-year-old blocks of ochre, which contained iron oxides that can be used as a pigment, or colouring agent.
The recent finds were all discovered together, as if someone had put them down intending to come back later.
Sands subsequently blew in through the cave and buried the materials, until their discovery in 2008.
Prof Henshilwood added: ‘It’s possible the paint was used to paint bodies, human skin. It could have been used to paint designs on leather or other objects.
‘It could have been used for paintings on walls, although the surfaces of southern African caves are not ideal for the long-term preservation of rock art.’
The findings were reported in the journal Science.
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