From Popular Archaeology
December, 2011 Volume 5
Neanderthals Used Red Ochre Pigment 250,000 Years AgoNot sure why this is dated Saturday, February 11, 2012
A new study shows that Neanderthals used the iron oxide pigments much earlier than thought.
We have seen cave paintings where the splashy red pigment was used to create images by ancient humans in present-day Europe tens of thousands of years ago. Scientists have said that ancient humans used it generally in Europe about 40,000 - 60,000 years ago, in West Asia as long ago as 100,000 years, and by the ancients in Africa as long ago as 200,000-250,000 years. Now, a new study suggests that Neanderthals were also using it in the present-day Netherlands region of Europe as far back as 200,000-250,000 years ago, if not earlier.
The study, conducted by a team of scientists led by W. Roebroeks of Leiden University, examined and analyzed a sample of red material retrieved from excavations originally conducted during the 1980's at the Maastricht-Belvédère Neanderthal site in the Netherlands. The excavations exposed scatterings of well-preserved flint and bone artifacts that were produced in a river valley during the Middle Pleistocene full interglacial period. During the coarse of the excavation, soil samples were also collected, a typical procedure when excavating a site. Within the soil samples were traces of a reddish material. The samples were subjected to various forms of analyses and experimentation to study their physical properties. They identified the reddish material as hematite, a common mineral form of iron oxide that was used for pigmentation by prehistoric populations.
Said Roebroeks, et. al. in the report:
We hypothesize that the best explanation is that the fine hematite material was originally concentrated in a liquid solution, and that blobs of this ochre-rich substance became embedded in the sediments during use of the liquid, spilled on the soil surface. To test this interpretation, we performed an experiment to observe the impact of drops of a hematite-rich liquid on the site C sediment. Despite the limitations of this experiment, the similarity of the experimentally produced concentrates to the archeological concentrates at both macroscopic and microscopic levels is remarkable and lend support to our interpretation of how the material entered the sediment. Moreover, the study further found that the nearest source of hematite for the red ochre pigment was "40 km from the site, in the Ardennes and Eifel areas", suggesting that the compound had to have been transported by the Neanderthals to the site from a distant location. The red ochre pigment thus might have been a part of their bag of desirable portables in their hunter-gatherer way of life.
So what were these early Neanderthals actually doing with this liquified red ochre? Many scientists suggest they may have been used for body decoration, such as in the case of some modern hunter-gatherer groups. Based on archaeological finds, such compounds were also sometimes used to make a glue for adhering stone points to wooden shafts. And again, based on observations of use by modern hunter-gather groups, ochre may have been used to soften animal hides.
The details of the study are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), January 23, 2012.
Cover Photo, Top Left: Some of the many paintings inside the Laas Geel caves, near Hargeisa in Somaliland/Somalia. Abdullah Geelah, Wikimedia Commons.
 Use of red ochre by early Neandertals, Wil Roebroeks, Mark J. Siera, Trine Kellberg Nielsena, Dimitri De Loeckera, Josep Maria Parésb, Charles E. S. Arpsd, and Herman J. Müchere, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, 2300 RA, Leiden, The Netherlands; Centro Nacional de Investigación Sobre la Evolución Humana, 09002 Burgos, Spain; Paleomagnetic Laboratory Fort Hoofddijk, Department of Earth Sciences, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University, 3584 CD, Utrecht, The Netherlands; dNCB Naturalis, 2300 RA, Leiden, The Netherlands; and University of Amsterdam, 6301 VK, Valkenburg, The Netherlands.