It appears that red ochre, color based on iron oxide, has been used very abundantly by prehistoric peoples, especially sapiens (Homo sapiens sapiens), but also to a lesser extent, Neanderthals. Examples include the 70k year old ochre processing workshop in Bloombos cave in South Africa, the Lake Mungo burials in Australia 45k years before present, the 33k year old Paviland skeleton in Britain, and in the Americas the Moorehead burial tradition.

It seems striking, how widespread this was in prehistoric sapiens population, so much so that it might be a common cultural trait that was retained for thousands of years from the migration out of Africa and across all continents. There is an old discussion piece from 1980 in the journal "Current Anthropology" with an article by Ernst Wreschner and several comments by various scholars. The article is on the journal's website behind a paywall or free on the website of one of the authors of one of the comments. While the article points out that red ochre usage was not universal (and only found in a minority of sites except in the Magdalenian and North American Archaic) and some comments are critical with regard to misinterpretation of evidence, you get the impression that this was extraordinarily common in prehistory, until it ceased with the neolithic or bronze or iron age (see Malinowski's comment on p.638). The discussion touches on whether and how this is a common human cultural trait, but also details problems with the collection of evidence and then ventures into the psychology of color perception and interpretation etc.

I was wondering to what extent this is true and this is a remarkable common cultural trait of prehistoric sapiens, common across all continents and times, even though it was clearly not universal. And whether any new evidence or insights have emerged since this discussion was published in 1980.

To explain: It would be much less impressive, if the abundance of evidence for red ochre is spurious (either because of misinterpretation of naturally occurring red ochre or because of the discussion is based on cherrypicked evidence and ochre was actually not found in almost all prehistoric sites). It would also be less impressive if red ochre is simply the only abundant dye that is available to humans with prehistoric technology (then the common cultural practice would only be the use of paint, which is, I guess, not controversial). But it would be impressive if we are actually looking at a piece of culture that had been retained since the migration out of Africa.

  • @justCal, could you tonecheck that comment - to me, it doesn't read as unfriendly, but it seems to strike others as unkind. As I said, I didn't read it as unkind, but felt obliged to inform you that it was flagged as potentially offensive. Might be worth considering if there is a way to revise to clarify. – Mark C. Wallace Jun 10 '20 at 14:08

You've already mentioned Blombos cave. One early upper paleolithic (European) example would be the Grotte Chauvet (~36kyBP). Ochre is habitually (sic ;-)) used (an found), e.g. in the middle and late upper paleolithic cave and wall paintings (25kyBP and later).

Use of red ochre (and hematite) is documented in the middle stone age (Africa) and middle paleolithic (Europe) as well, possibly by early Neandertals.

See the enumeration of some early find sites in the second (habitual) link, earliest African traces date back to late acheulean (Home erectus context) or transition from old to middle stone age (~250kyBP).

Please just accept the terms concerning chronology, it needs a lot more to explain connections (or the lack) between stone tool industries and human groups or species. Note that African and European chronologies are different and may not be mixed or compared (African middle stone age != European middle paleolithic).

I don't want to reason about cultural implications or any type of symbolism since this is mostly vain for the lifestyle of the paleolithic people, which in the end we know little about, only from the material remains we find. But ochre is openly available (a most colourful site being for instance Roussillon) and can be transformed into hematite by heating, giving a bright red streak when applied to a surface. Ochre/hematite are actually rare to find in assemblages, and worth special mention if found during a paleolithic excavation if they are not just lying as a piece of red clay in a firesite.

So, tl, dr and to answer the question as undeluted as possible: yes, widespread in use by Homo sapiens, even if one includes Neandertals in the family. Possibly by late Home erectus in Africa as well.

  • Do you have a map, perhaps, to aid your points? – gktscrk Jun 10 '20 at 17:53
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    @gktscrk - That would be great, but its a bit much to ask a poster here to make a map if one doesn't already conveniently exist. – T.E.D. Jun 10 '20 at 18:40
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    @T.E.D.: I was curious if one did exist... I did upvote the post already, but I was hoping to visualize this easier. – gktscrk Jun 10 '20 at 19:09
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    Thank you both. Yes, @gktscrk, T.E.D. is right, I'd have to do a lot of research and I am far from a university and its library with connections to the journals, now. Not everything is readily available over the Internet, and that'll be a proper Bachelor thesis, ordered by stone tool industry to allow for correlation with human presence (I can imgaine it exists in some university vault already) :-). Wolf et al might "habitually" have something in the references. – user43870 Jun 10 '20 at 19:23

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