Friday, February 10, 2012


An article in Archaeology Magazine, Vol. 65, No. 1, January/February 2012, written by David Herbert describes the discovery of a Paleolithic toolkit used by artists.

Abalone shell paint cup, p.20, Archaeology,
Vol. 65, No. 1, Jan-Feb 2012

Herbert wrote “A cave in southwestern South Africa was used as a paint production workshop, where ancient artists made a liquid ochre pigment. The toolkit of shells, stone, and bone from Blombos Cave suggests Middle Stone Age humans were capable planners.

Similar paint-making workshops have been found, such as the one at Lascaux Cave in France, but, at 100,000 years old, the Blombos toolkit is now the oldest one uncovered. ““A Middle Stone Age painter has left all his tools for us,”” says Francesco d’Errico, a University of Bordeaux archaeologist involved in the excavation, noting the kit’s complete and preserved state.

 Artifacts from Blombos cave.
Chenshilwood at en.wikipedia.

Two abalone shells were found with ochre and mineral residue in them, along with tools resembling mortars and pestles made of stone and bone from a variety of animals. The shells used for storing the powder are caked with both yellow and red pigments, implying repeated use. The variety of tools suggests their owner returned to the cave repeatedly to grind ochre from clay found nearby, using and discarding tools as needed.”

This is not the first discovery of apparent artist’s supplies at Blombos Cave. Earlier finds include blocks of ochre that could be intended for making paint, although some of them bear engraved line decorations making their intended use more difficult to interpret. In addition to that we have bone tools that may have been intended for applying the paint like an ink pen. Now, adding to those the abalone shells used for mixing and storing the paint and tools used to grind the pigments, and we have a complete artist’s kit.

Unfortunately the article does not describe any evidence of paint usage in Blombos cave. There is no indication that the ochre was used to create pictographs on the cave walls but it did point out  that much of the cave has a layer of calcite on the walls which might be obscuring original painted imagery. Additionally d’Errico speculated that the ochre paint might have been created for body decoration. In any case this represents the earliest known artist’s tool kit and pushes the horizon of the dawn of human art much earlier in our history.


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