Humans used a paint shop in Ethiopia for 4,500 years

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

Amazing. This must have been a huge society to support such an active paint shop, especially at the peak. We know that, during the last 2,000 years, migrant societies of Asia often numbered in the millions, but they had the advantage of horses and goats and bison. Without domesticated animals, a migrant society was probably smaller, but perhaps there might have been a few 100,000s in the area of this paint shop when it was at its peak.

45,000 years ago, in an area that is now part of Ethiopia, humans found a roomy cave at the base of a limestone cliff and turned it into a special kind of workshop. Inside, they built up a cache of over 40 kilograms of reddish stones high in iron oxide. Using a variety of tools, they ground the stones into different colored powders: deep reds, glowing yellows, rose grays. Then they treated the powder by heating it or mixing it with other ingredients to create the world’s first paint. For at least 4,500 years, people returned to this cave, known today as Porc-Epic, covering its walls in symbols and inking their bodies and clothes. Some anthropologists call it the first artist’s workshop.

…It’s possible that humans used Porc-Epic to make conventional tools, as ochre can be used for adhesives and for tanning hides. But after analyzing the methods people used to powder the rocks, researchers are fairly certain that these techniques were optimized to produce small amounts of powder best suited for decoration and art. Over the centuries that people used the cave, they see many changes. Early artisans ground the ochre down with other rocks to produce powder, but later ones would reduce the rocks to flakes before crushing them.

Color choice also seemed to change over time. “Although red and dark red shades are dominant in all levels, they become proportionally less well represented in levels in which ochre is more abundant,” write Rosso and her colleagues. “These levels are richer in grey, brown, orange, and yellow pieces and pieces of multiple colors. We also observe a decline in dark red, and red+yellow, and an increase in red, and red+grey.”
At roughly the midpoint of the cave’s use, perhaps about 43,000 to 42,000 years ago, there is a noticeable uptick in the amount of ochre being processed. That’s when the researchers find that red is “less well represented,” supplemented by a wide range of colors. Later in the life of the cave, when the grinding techniques had all but stopped, colors become less vibrant.

One of the great mysteries of Porc-Epic cave is what happened during that peak period when suddenly we see people working with a large number of different colors of ochre. The cave appears to have been bustling with activity. There’s even evidence of what might have been apprentices, whose grinding and flaking work is far more irregular and imprecise than what we see typically. It seems obvious that a larger number of people were using the cave at this point, but why? The researchers believe there was no dramatic cultural shift taking place, simply because there are no changes in the other kinds of tools that people were using at the time. There may have been a change in the environment that made the area more hospitable for larger populations. Or perhaps the existing population was simply demanding more ochre powder.

But perhaps the most incredible part of the Porc-Epic cave is the lack of change. For more than four millennia, humans used this cave to produce paint out of the same kinds of reddish rocks. Their techniques and favored colors varied a little over time, but for the most part they stuck with what they had learned from generations of ancestors. We’re left wondering what the ochre symbolized for these people. The researchers wonder whether they may actually have perceived colors differently than modern people do.

As to that last point, if these people hunted at night, they might have become sensitive to ultra-red, just like dogs and wolves and cats. In which case they would see many more colors in those redish rocks than we do.

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