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Middle Stone Age ochre processing tools reveal cultural and behavioural complexity

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Credit: D.E. Rosso and F. d'Errico

Middle Stone Age humans in East Africa may have employed varied techniques to process ochre for functional and symbolic uses, according to a study published November 2, 2016 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Daniela Rosso from the University of Bordeaux, France, and colleagues.

Ochre fragments-which are rocks containing iron oxides, red or yellow in color-have often been found at Middle Stone Age sites and have played a role in shaping the cultures of early African Homo sapiens. Some researchers suggest 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. However, few ochre processing tools have been studied in detail to understand how this material was processed.

The authors of the present study used microscopy, spectroscopy and X-ray techniques to analyze 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.

The researchers found that the tools appeared to have been used to process different types of iron-rich rocks. A range of stone types were used as grindstones, producing ochre powder of different color and coarseness, likely employed to suit different functions, revealing a high degree of behavioral complexity. For example, finer powders would be most suitable for body painting, whereas coarser ochre would be suitable for functional uses. One round stone appeared to have been painted or used as a stamp to apply pigment powder to different surfaces. The authors note that this is the first Paleolithic site to provide such comprehensive documentation of ochre processing techniques.

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"This study analyses the largest collection of such tools, found at Porc-Epic Cave, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, in levels dated at c. 40,000 years ago," says Rosso. "Ochre processing at Porc-Epic Cave reflects a high degree of behavioural complexity, and represents ochre use that was probably devoted to a variety of functions."

In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available paper: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0164793

Citation: Rosso DE, Pitarch Martí A, d'Errico F (2016) Middle Stone Age Ochre Processing and Behavioural Complexity in the Horn of Africa: Evidence from Porc-Epic Cave, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. PLoS ONE 11(11): e0164793. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0164793

Funding: Research by DR was funded by the Generalitat de Catalunya (Ajuts per a la contractació de personal investigador novell, FI-DGR), the Doctoral Research scholarship Programme of the Martine Aublet Foundation, and the Eiffel Excellence Scholarship Programme of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development. Research by AP was funded by the Generalitat de Catalunya (Beatriu de Pinós postdoctoral fellowship, 2014 BP-A 00122). This research was conducted with the financial support of the Wenner-Gren Foundation (Gr. 8786), the LaScArBx research programme, supported by the ANR ANR-10-LABX-52, and the European Research Council Advanced Grant, TRACSYMBOLS No. 249587 awarded under the FP7 program. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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