Blombos pigment workshop

3 minute read

I know that some readers are starting to wonder if I’ve forgotten about paleoanthropology lately. Let’s just say that the Neandertal and Denisova genomes have me very busy, and I don’t think you’d want it any other way.

But on the paleoanthropological front, Science has released a paper by Chris Henshilwood and colleagues Henshilwood:pigment:2011 describing two toolkits used by ancient MSA people more than 100,000 years ago to grind pigment and mix it with animal fat, presumably for painting.

I want to share a picture from the article (credit G. Moll Pedersen), which shows one of the two toolkits in situ. I want to make a point about it that would be difficult without seeing the photo:

That photo shows Tk1, the first toolkit. Now, here’s the description of what Henshilwood and colleagues were able to interpret from the artifacts in the photo:

We infer that manufacturing proceeded as follows: Pieces of ochre (FS1 and FS2) were rubbed on quartzite slabs to produce a fine red powder, and some were knapped with large lithic flakes. The ochre chips resulting from the latter were crushed with quartz, quartzite, and silcrete hammerstones/grinders. Quartzite grinders were used to crush goethite or hematite-rich lutite. Medium-sized mammal bone was crushed, probably with a stone hammer. The red or reddish brown color and cracked, flaky texture of some of the trabecular bone suggest that it was heated before crushing, probably to enhance the extraction of the marrow fat. The hematite powder, charcoal, crushed trabecular bone, stone chips, and quartz grains and a liquid were then introduced into the Haliotis shells and gently stirred (figs. S5, S25, and S26). Charcoal is rare in the layer-CP matrix, suggesting that it was a deliberate addition to the mix. The quartz and quartzite chips, produced during the action of crushing the ochre, and the quartz grains may have been incidentally incorporated.

You can see how the complex interpretation was made possible by finding these things in association as part of one feature. If one or two of these pieces had been found separately, many archaeologists would be skeptical of such a story. Indeed, even the interpretation of this toolkit might appear incredible were it not for the second toolkit also found at the site. Archaeologists are conservative that way, they don’t like to overinterpret the evidence. Even this series of events – grinding, heating, mixing, and so on – isn’t very complicated compared to many activities that humans do every day. It’s an example where Henshilwood and colleagues have advanced what archaeologically can show beyond a shadow of doubt about ancient people, but still leaves a gap in our understanding of the ancient cultural system.

A complex behavioral pattern that is actually found cannot have been an isolated instance. Complexity implies a tradition of which these toolkits are only miniscule remnants.

In this light, I should point out that the Blombos evidence is by far earlier than other evidence of pigment grinding and heating, but not unique in the South African MSA. Last year I linked to a Jennifer Viegas story about red ochre production at Sibudu Cave, South Africa. This is Lyn Wadley’s work Wadley:ash:2010, and the research paper has since been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Also in that journal last year was a paper by Francesco d’Errico and colleagues dErrico:Skhul:2010, which described pigment nodules found in the Middle Paleolithic in Mt. Carmel site of Skhul, Israel. We have quite a lot of circumstantial evidence about pigment use in these early contexts both inside and outside Africa, and more is building all the time.

The archaeological record is bad in many ways. The wooden artifacts preserved at Abric Romani, Spain, are another example of an exceptional archaeological find. I’ve been meaning to write about them since Julien Riel-Salvatore mentioned them last month. Archaeologists have been working the Middle Paleolithic for nearly 150 years, yet we know next to nothing about wooden artifacts. Abric Romani is not entirely alone, but is enough to show the existence of a broader tradition occupying this blind spot, because the extensive shaping of artifacts and labor used to create them implies a cultural knowledge and utility.