And now comes evidence to suggest that painting goes back just as far. At least 100,000 years ago, about 40,000 years earlier than previously thought, human beings made pigments for paint through a process that is surprisingly complex.
In the October 14 edition of the journal Science, Christopher Henshilwood and his team present their analysis of the earliest known “artists’ workshop.” In the Blombos Cave in Cape Town, South Africa, they discovered a 100,000 year old ochre processing site. In two places in the cave, ochre was ground into fine powder, mixed with crushed quartz and other chemicals including charcoal and bone, and blended into a pigment mixture that was stored in two abalone shells. The pigment may have been used for painting, body decoration, or coloring of clothing.
"The recovery of these toolkits adds evidence for early technological and behavioural developments associated with humans and documents their deliberate planning, production and curation of pigmented compound and the use of containers. It also demonstrates that humans had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning 100,000 years ago," concludes Henshilwood in a press release issued by the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The article, "A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa," appears in the October 14 issue of Science.
What is fascinating is how early all this occurred and just how complex the process was. It involved careful planning over time. It included surprisingly sophistical technology (one is tempted to say “chemical engineering”). Why? What was stirring then, and how are we still inventing new ways to release the human imagination?