Abalone Shells are Oldest Containers Used for Art 100,000 Years Ago

By @Len_IBTimes on

Researchers have uncovered in a South African cave some paraphernalia that look like paint-making kits, including abalone shells that were used as containers around 100,000 years ago.

The abalone shells are the first known example of the use of a container, older by 40,000 years than the next example, an archaeologist told LiveScience.

The discovered tools include the oldest-known example of a human-made compound mixture, said study researcher Christopher Henshilwood, an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Researchers suspect that a group of Homo sapiens had 'painted' in a scenic cave by mixing iron-rich dirt with heated bone. The mixture was prepared in abalone shells for a resulting red paint.

"To me, it's an important indicator of how technologically advanced people were 100,000 years ago," Henshilwood said. "If this was a paint, it also indicates the likelihood that people were using substances in a symbolic way 100,000 years ago."

"They must have had an elementary knowledge of chemistry," Mr Henshilwood said. "And they also had a recipe for this compound or this paint."

The paint kits were found sitting in a layer of dune sand, just where they had been left by perhaps the oldest painters in human history.

Along with the toolkits, Mr Henshilwood said, the archaeology team found pieces of ocher, or colored clay, etched with abstract designs in a cave east of Cape Town, now called Blombos Cave.

Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, told LiveScience in an email: "Since ocher-rich compounds have several potential applications, it is necessary to conduct experiments to test the effectiveness of the ancient recipe as paint, adhesive or another product."

"My own experimental work suggests that the mixture would be an effective adhesive, but I have not used the specific combination of constituents found at Blombos," Ms Wadley furthered.

The combination of ingredients may not offer a singular definite answer on how the ancient mixture was used, but other items with it imply how it was made.

Archaelogists found the shells, ocher and bone fragments with the scapula of a seal, and a number of quartzite stones that had been used to grind the ocher down.

"These were all laying right next to the shells, so each shell had its own little toolkit associated with it," Mr Henshilwood said.

Connecting the dots, the items found suggest that ground ocher was mixed with bone that was heated to release the oils within the marrow. Then the heated, crushed bone was mixed with charcoal and ocher and stirred in the shells, which also bore traces of sand and quartzite chips. Some sort of liquid, perhaps water or urine, would have been added to make the pigment spreadable, Mr Henshilwood said.

Mr Henshilwood and Ms Wadley agree that its existence reveals that our ancient ancestors were a clever bunch, LiveScience reported. 

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