Bloomberg News

100,000-Year-Old Art Studio Illuminates Early Human Intelligence

October 13, 2011

Oct. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Ancient artists concocted and stored a paint mixture in a South African cave 100,000 years ago, a discovery researchers say proves an earlier human grasp of chemistry and planning than previously thought.

The materials were discovered in 2008 in Blombos Cave, 300 kilometers (186 miles) east of Cape Town, according to an article published online today by the journal Science. Two paint-making toolkits were found in which Homo sapiens mixed and stored a liquefied combination of ochre, bone, charcoal and other materials in abalone shells, the researchers said.

The 100,000-year-old toolkits are the earliest evidence to date of human technology for combining and storing substances that may have been central to social practices. Possible uses of the ochre, which the findings suggest was ground to a fine red powder, mixed with liquid, charcoal and a crushed spongy bone that may have acted as a binder, include decoration and skin protection, the researchers said in the paper.

The discovery “casts a whole new light on early Homo sapiens,” author Christopher Henshilwood of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and University of Bergen in Norway, said in a podcast interview with Science. “It tells us that they were probably a lot more intelligent than we think, and they were capable certainly of carrying out quite sophisticated acts at least 40,000 or perhaps 50,000 years before any other known example of this kind of basic chemistry.”

Other workshops have been dated back to 60,000 years ago, according to the paper. Older tools for working with ochre had also been discovered, though scientists still knew little about how the pigment was prepared and stored, said Francesco d’Errico, an author of the paper and a researcher at the University of Bordeaux in France.

--Editors: Angela Zimm, Chris Staiti

To contact the reporter on this story: Meg Tirrell in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at

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