The Earliest Known Artist’s Studio

The discovery of a 100,000-year-old art studio in Africa hints at when modern human behavior emerged

An abalone shell recovered from Blombos Cave and a grindstone covered in red ochre.
An abalone shell recovered from Blombos Cave and a grindstone covered in red ochre. Image © Science/AAAS

Call it an early artist’s studio or a primitive chemist’s lab: Last week scientists announced the discovery of a 100,000-year-old paint-processing workshop in a cave in South Africa, where early humans stored paint mixtures in shell containers. The finding demonstrates that our ancestors had some basic understanding of chemistry and a capacity for long-term planning at this early point in our species’ history, the researchers reported in Science.

Evidence of the workshop comes from bones, charcoal, grindstones, hammerstones and, most importantly, ochre, an iron-rich red rock. The materials were found in Blombos Cave, about 185 miles east of Cape Town, by Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen in Norway and the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and his colleagues. The researchers say these tools and raw materials were used to make a compound akin to paint: In an abalone shell, ground-up ochre was mixed and stirred with charcoal, a liquid (possibly urine) and crushed mammal bones that had been heated. In addition to being used as mixing bowls, the abalone shells served as storage containers.

It’s not clear how the mixture was used, but the researchers speculate our ancestors may have applied it to cave walls, clothing, artifacts or the human body as a decoration or to protect surfaces.

This study is interesting because it adds to the mounting evidence that modern human behavior emerged early in our species’ history. This was not the view a couple decades ago. At that time, there appeared to be a big gap between when Homo sapiens evolved, sometime between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, and when they started to act modern. Based on the archaeological record, it seemed there was a dramatic change 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, when evidence of sophisticated cognitive behavior appears—such as tools made out of materials other than stone, the use of marine resources (indicating a move into new habitats and requiring new technology) and symbolic thought as expressed through art. Why there would be such a delay between looking modern and acting modern wasn’t known, although Richard Klein of Stanford University suggested some sort of genetic mutation affecting the brain created a behavioral revolution in our species.

But then evidence of much earlier complex behavior started popping up. Largely in South African caves, scientists found engraved pieces of red ochre and beads dating to as many as 77,000 years ago. In 2007, researchers found even older traces—red ochre, very small blades and the use of shellfish—at a site from 164,000 years ago. So it seems at least some modern behaviors arose much earlier than previously thought. I’m curious to see how far back scientists will trace our behavioral modernity—will the timing ultimately match up with when we became physically modern?

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