Pigments in the MSA and Middle Paleolithic

This is a piece of Goethite, found at the Krems/Hundssteig site in the 1970ies. Such findings are common from Upper Paleolithic sites.

The use of pigments by Hominines at archaeological sites during the Middle and Late Pleistocene in Europe and sub- Saharan Africa may indicate that colors had a strong symbolic connotation for our ancestors. Therefore the non-utilitarian use of pigments plays an important role in the debate about the cognitive abilities of early Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals.

It has to be mentioned that pigments such as hematite, goethite and ochreous materials could have been used for utilitarian purposes (preparation of hides, for medicinal purposes, as a component for adhesives), but these purposes are uncommon in the ethnographic literature. It seems now to be widely accepted, that the likelihood that these pigments were used for non-utilitarian activities such as body painting, personal ornamentation, coloring of important artifacts (beads, tools) and rock surfaces is much greater. The symbolic use of pigments is underlined by the presence of notched, incised and “crayon-like” pieces (Blombos, Pech de l’Azé I and IV). In addition it is possible that pigments were used in multiple contexts.

Pigment acquisition and its archaeological correlates are common in late MSA (MIS 5/4 and 3) contexts throughout Africa. These sites include Blombos Cave, South Africa, Porc Epic Cave, Ethiopia, and Florisbad, South Africa. The evidence for ochre use even extends back to the beginnings of the MSA, for example in the Kapthurin Formation, Kenya, dated to >240 k.a, at Twin Rivers, Zambia dated roughly to the same time interval. Excavations at Sai 8-B-11 in northern Sudan show yellow and red pigment lumps associated with grinding tools with traces of pigments and vegetal materials. The associated Sangoan core axe lithic ensemble is dated to 200 k.a BP.

New excavations at Blombos cave revealed two sets of implements for preparing red and yellow ochres. Here she stone and bone tools for crushing, mixing and applying the pigments were uncovered alongside the shells of giant sea snails that had obviously been used as mixing pots. These facts were published late in 2011.

In Europe the use of pigments by Neanderthals is well documented during the later phases of the Middle Paleolithic (from 120 to 40 k.a BP).  Most often, these pigments consist of manganese dioxide, and more rarely ochre. Most of these sites date to the end of the Middle Paleolithic (OIS 4/3) and are attributed to the MTA and the Charentian Mousterian.  In the 1980’s 14 small red dots were identified during excavations of the Middle Paleolithic site Maastricht- Belvédère, dating to 250 k.a BP. These samples were identified as hematite and may be the earliest examples of pigment use by Neanderthals.

New facts about the reanalysis of these samples were now published: At Maastricht-Belvédère hematite fragments were not part of the sedimentary environment but were imported from sources known at ∼40 km from the site, in the Ardennes and Eifel areas. The authors of a 2012 PNAS paper demonstrated that the best explanation is that the fine hematite material was originally concentrated in a liquid solution, and that tiny blobs of this ochre-rich substance became embedded in the sediments.

Krems is the Beginning of the World heritage site Wachau; just 70 km west of Vienna!

Vineyards in the Wachau / Winter 1989

wachau katzmann walls

Further Reading:






About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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One Response to Pigments in the MSA and Middle Paleolithic

  1. Pingback: Retouched tools from the Middle Paleolithic in Israel | Aggsbach's Paleolithic Blog

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