40000-years-old stone tools reveal behavioural complexity of Homo sapiens

Archaeologist analysing Middle Stone Age tools from Ethiopia used for processing ochre revealed that societies of Homo sapiens living 40000 years ago were characterised by cultural and behavioural complexity.

Tools used for ochre processing (by D.E. Rosso and F. d'Errico via PhysOrg)
Tools used for ochre processing (by Daniela Eugenia Rosso and Francesco d’Errico via PhysOrg)

Archaeologists from University of Bordeaux studied Middle Stone Age sites that  have played a role in shaping the cultures of early African Homo sapiens. They discovered that these humans living in Africa 40000 years ago employed varied techniques to process ochre for functional and symbolic uses. It is believed that ochre was used for utilitarian purposes, for example in glue to adhere handles to tools, whilst others believe that the pigment was used for symbolic purposes, such as body painting or creating meaningful patterns. The scientists used microscopy, spectroscopy and X-ray techniques to analyse 21 ochre-processing tools and two ochre-stained artefacts from the Porc-Epic Cave, a 40,000-year-old Middle Stone Age site in Ethiopia, to learn more about the tools used for processing of the pigment.

Porc-Epic Cavein  Dire Dawa, Ethiopia (by Daniela Eugenia Rosso and Francesco d’Errico via PhysOrg)
Porc-Epic Cave in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia (by Daniela Eugenia Rosso and Francesco d’Errico via PhysOrg)

It was discovered that various kinds of tools were used to process different types of rocks rich in iron. Among the types of tools were grindstones that produced ochre powder of different colour and coarseness, possibly for different purposes. One of the objects, a round stone appeared even to have been painted or used as a stamp to apply pigment powder to different surfaces.

Ochre residue on oen of the tools (by Daniela Eugenia Rosso and Francesco d’Errico via PhysOrg)
Ochre residue on oen of the tools (by Daniela Eugenia Rosso and Francesco d’Errico via PhysOrg)

The study, published in PLOS ONE journal, focused on the site that as first provided such comprehensive documentation of Palaeolithic ochre processing techniques. The researchers suggest that one types of ochre, for example finer powders, were used for body painting, whereas other, coarser ochre would be suitable for functional uses.

Modified ochre lumps (by Daniela Eugenia Rosso and Francesco d’Errico via PhysOrg)
Modified ochre lumps (by Daniela Eugenia Rosso and Francesco d’Errico via PhysOrg)

(after PhysOrg, Daniela Eugenia Rosso &Francesco d’Errico)

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