In life and in death, our ancestors covered themselves with iron oxide.
Image of a horse colored with yellow ochre from Lascaux cave, France, c 17,300 BC
“What is the oldest pigment?” a reader asked me this week. That’s one of the few questions that archeology can answer definitively.
It’s ochre, one of the iron-oxide pigments. These minerals are common and easy to manipulate. Primitive man needed only to find suitable rocks and scratch or grind them. Adding water, he had paint. Adding milk, he had paint with a protein binder.
Ochre’s history is far older than modern man. A quartzite hammerstone found near the Danube shows a 500,000-year-old partial handprint of ochre. The earliest known cache of milled ochre comes from a Homo erectus site that’s about 285,000 years old. By 250,000 years ago, Neanderthals were using ochre at the Maastricht Belvédère site in The Netherlands. By 40,000 years ago, ochre was being manufactured in an ongoing process in an Ethiopian cave. That workshop lasted 4500 years.
Image of a human hand created with red ochre in Pech Merle cave, France, c. 25,000 BC
All that makes the Upper Paleolithic cave art at Lascauxseem downright modern.
Sienna, umber and red oxide are other iron-oxide pigments from antiquity, but none are as venerable as ochre. In ancient practice, different hues might have come from different rocks, or they could have been ochre that was heated or treated to change its structure.
The easiest way to manipulate ochre was to toss it in the fire. Burned, it turns red. Evidence of this dates from 100,000 to 70,000 years ago in deposits in Blombos Cave in South Africa.
Ochre filled a large niche in the prehistoric world. In addition to its obvious uses as a paint, it was a medicine, cosmetic, tanning agent and mastic.
Paintings in the Tomb of Nakht in ancient Egypt, c. 15th century BC
“[It] is not unusual to find a layer of the cave floor impregnated with a purplish red to a depth of eight inches. The size of these ochre deposits raises a problem not yet solved. The colouring is so intense that practically all the loose ground seems to consist of ochre,” wrote archeologist André Leroi-Gourhan of prehistoric Europeans. “One can imagine that the Aurignacians regularly painted their bodies red, dyed their animal skins, coated their weapons, and sprinkled the ground of their dwellings, and that a paste of ochre was used for decorative purposes in every phase of their domestic life. We must assume no less, if we are to account for the veritable mines of ochre on which some of them lived.”
Red ochre is closely associated with prehistoric burial rites. The so-called Red Lady of Pavilandwas a male skeleton dyed with red ochre about 33,000 years ago.
Remains of the Red Lady of Paviland, Wales, c. 35,000 BC
“I found the skeleton enveloped by a coating of a kind of ruddle … which stained the earth, and in some parts extended itself to the distance of about half an inch around the surface of the bones … Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by ruddle [were] about two handfuls of the Nerita littoralis. At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs [were] forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods [also] some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods … Both rods and rings, as well as the Nerite shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones,” wrote its discoverer, the Rev. William Buckland.
Some prehistoric graves used cinnabar in place of ochre. That would have been a costly trade item. Even in death, society has always been divided between the haves and have-nots. Ironically, what they had in this instance was toxic.