Ochre in Hafting in Middle Stone Age Southern Africa: A Practical Role

Article excerpt


There appears to have been a demand for colouring material during the Middle Stone Age (MSA) and large quantities have been found at some African sites. At the enigmatic site of Lion Cavern, in the eastern part of South Africa, tons of specular haematite were mined from iron pods perhaps earlier than 40 000 BP. Mining hammers in the form of grooved heavy duty stones were found alongside MSA tools in a Lion Cavern adit (Beaumont 1973: 140). Colouring material was, however, used systematically even earlier than this at c. 200 000 BP at Kapthurin, Kenya (McBrearty 2001), and possibly earlier still at Twin Rivers in Zambia where pigments were found associated with a Lupemban Industry (Barham 2002). Barham (2002: 186-7) estimates that at Twin Rivers about 60 kg of colouring material were recovered from the 1950s excavations, while about 16 kg were recovered from his own sampling in the 1990s.

There is considerable speculation amongst archaeologists about the potential uses of the early pigment. Some archaeologists, for example Knight et al. (1995), Deacon (1995), McBrearty & Brooks (2000) and Watts (2002), claim that the presence of ochre in MSA occupations, and particularly ochre crayons, implies ritual, such as body-painting, a hypothesis that has stemmed from analogy with modern hunter-gatherers living tens of thousands of years later. For example, !Kung girls observed in north-western Botswana in historic times used ochre body-paint for puberty and marriage rituals (Marshall 1976: 277). There is, however, no way of testing whether ancient people in Africa practised body painting. Recently another use for ochre was discovered at Blombos Cave in the Western Cape where two pieces of engraved ochre were found (Henshilwood et al. 2002). The larger Blombos ochre tablet has a crosshatched design engraved inside several broken boundary lines and the tablet was found in a layer believed to date to c. 77 000 BP. The decorated ochre is interpreted by Henshilwood et al. (2002) as evidence for the presence of symbolic behaviour and therefore cultural modernity by c. 77 000 BP.

In addition to these more symbolic uses, there is some evidence that ochre had practical functions. For example, ochre has been shown to have medicinal purposes as an antibacterial agent (Mandl 1961: 196; Velo 1984) and it therefore inhibits collagenase, making it ideal for tanning, softening and colouring leather (Audouin & Plisson 1982). Watts (2002) contests the use of ochre as a hide preservative, argues for its primarily decorative use on hides and claims that there is no functional reason for the use of red rather than other colours of ferruginous material. It is true that the extinct/Xam from Bushmanland, South Africa, used it to colour leather bags (Bleek & Lloyd 1911) and the San practice of colouring some leather bags continues even today in parts of Botswana and Namibia (LW personal observation). It is also true that there are many ways of tanning leather and that ochre is not an essential component of the process, for example, southern Ethiopian hide workers use only water on their skins (Kimura et al. 2001). However, ochre is a very successful tanning agent. In 1906 Steinman observed Tehuelches in Argentina tanning guanaco hides with ochre and fat and Sollas described the same process for hide tanning in Tasmania (Audouin & Plisson 1982:57). Furthermore, Audonin and Plisson (1982) demonstrate that ochre tanning of hides is beneficial, particularly for preventing or reversing the process of decay. One of their experiments involved treatment with ochre of a three day old moose skin that was already beginning to putrefy. The rotting skin was scraped with simple flakes and ochre was then applied everywhere, except the tail. Notwithstanding the disadvantageous start to the experiment the ochred skin dried quickly and became thinner and softer. The tail section which had not been treated with ochre became green and malodorous. …