Look Inside a 100,000-Year-Old Art Studio

By Kristen Philipkoski on at

Archaeologists have discovered an ancient workshop that was used by early homo-sapiens to make, mix and store ochre. It's the oldest "art workshop" ever uncovered.

Christopher Henshilwood and his colleagues at the University of Bergen in Norway made the discovery in 2008 in the Blombos Cave in South Africa, where they excavated remnants of ochre, the earliest form or reddish paint, and tools like hammers and grindstones for creating art and decoration with it. The scientists have spent the past two years analyzing the data and are publishing their findings in the October 14 issue of Science.

Decorated rocks were previously discovered at the Blombos Cave, which is located near the southern Cape shore of the Indian Ocean, about 200 miles from Cape Town.

Early homo-sapiens using ochre was previously recorded to have happened around 60,000 years ago. But these new findings show that early humans were not only using ochre much earlier, but also that they were producing and storing it 100,000 years ago. The researchers found bones for stirring as well as evidence of bone marrow and charcoal, which was likely used for mixing with the ochre to make paint. The scientists also found abalone shells that likely served as containers—the early humans even seem to have plugged holes in the shells so they wouldn't leak. The researchers believe the early Homo sapiens covered and preserved the kits for posterity.

This conceptual ability—to combine and store ingredients—marks a critical point in the evolution of human thinking. The new findings demonstrate that early humans in Africa had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the aptitude for long-term planning.

The scientists can't be sure what the paint was used for, but they believe the early Homo sapiens might have painted their bodies or designed art with it. "The absence of resins or wax suggests it was not used to make a glue or a mastic," Henshilwood said in a video that accompanied press materials.

A hundred freaking thousand years ago! This kind of story makes me wish I were an archaeologist. If only there wasn't so much dirt involved. [Science]