The Meaning of Colors

Colorful Neolithic arrowheads (largest example: 6×1,8×0,3 cm).

From the ethnological record, we know that in traditional societies, raw material for stone tool production is not solely selected for its functional properties. A distinctive color, shape, or texture of the lithic raw material is often associated with a mythical and spiritual meaning. Colored stones or stones that are covered with colored pigments are suggested being charged with spiritual power.

Coloration by pigments seems to be an early trait of the human lineage. It seems now to be widely accepted, that these pigments were mainly used for non-utilitarian activities such as body painting, personal ornamentation, coloring of important artifacts (beads, tools) and rock surfaces.

Paleolithic men had five main colors at their disposal: yellow, red, brown, black and white. Manganese oxides were the most common inorganic pigments used for black painting. The only organic pigment preserved for black coloration is charcoal, which allows dating cave “art” with C-14. If there were other organic substances that were processed for coloration is unknown. Red (reddish brown and yellow-orange) pigments were produced from iron oxides, like hematite or limonite, and from ochre. White was very rare but could be obtained from kaolinite or illite (at Lascaux).

In Africa the evidence for human ochre use 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.

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.

An ochered fossil marine shell was found in the  the Mousterian layers of Fumane Cave (N-Italy), dated to 47,6-45,0 cal k.a. BP . The authors of the 2013 article discuss that  the shell may have been used as a tool, a pigment container, a “manuport”, or a personal ornament.

Graves with ochre bedding are known from Qafzeh Cave in Israel (9 k.a. BP), where the skeletal remains and burials of the first early modern humans in the Levant were found. From the 60 Upper Paleolithic graves in Europe, about 30 are connected with the use of ochre (Paviland, Krems Wachtberg, Brno II, Dolni Vestonice, Balzi Rossi, Kostenki 14 and 15, Sungir, Cro Magnon). In Lagar Velho (Portugal) a burial of a child, dated to the Gravettian at 25 ka BP was found. The four years old child was covered with red ochre and laid on a bed of burnt vegetation together with pierced teeth and marine shells. The burial of two newborns was found at the Krems Wachtberg Pavlovian site in Austria. The children were sprinkled with ochre and wrapped in skin, together with a necklace of mammoth ivory. The 27 000 years old grave was covered with a mammoth shoulder blade.

The exact meaning of these practices is unknown. Many traditional societies today regard the color red as symbolic of fertility or vitality. It is generally suggested that during the Paleolithic the color red may have been a symbol for blood and life and on a higher intellectual level a symbol of transformation. During the Upper Paleolithic, there was also a powerful symbolic relation between ochre and femininity regarding that many Paleolithic “Venus figurines” were painted with red ochre or hematite. The Venus from Mauern (Gravettian about 28 ka BP) is completely covered with a thick layer of ochre. Ochre was also found on the Venuses from the Grimaldi Caves (Gravettian / Epigravettian), and on the Venuses from Willendorf (Austria; Wachau; Kostenkian about 25 ka BP) and Laussel (Gravettian).

Suggested Reading:

3107 Views since 2/2016 3 Views Today

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.
This entry was posted in Plaeolithics and Neolithics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Meaning of Colors

  1. Andrea kashee says:


    I love your blog and you!


  2. Katzman says:

    Andrea – we share many common interests……

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *