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Researchers study one of the broadest ochre collections from the Paleolithic

Pictures of the studied pieces and the archaeological site. Photo: Rosso et al.

Pictures of the studied pieces and the archaeological site. Photo: Rosso et al.

24/05/2017

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The use of ochre is important evidence to know the degree of complexity of prehistoric societies. A study published in the journal PLOS ONE has analyzed forty kilos of ochre mineral from the archaeological site of Porc-Epic cave, in Ethiopia, dated from around 40.000 years ago. It is one of the widest collections of this kind, found in a Paleolithic site, and corresponds to a 4.500 year period, apart from being located in an area which is essential to study the origins of the Homo sapiens, such as eastern Africa. “The research showed that the studied populations used this material continuously over millions of years” says Daiela Rosso, first signer of the article and researcher of the Seminar on Prehistoric Studies of the University of Barcelona (SERP-UB).

The study, conducted by Rosso together with Francesco d’Errico and Alain Queffelec, from the National Center for Scientific Research in France (CNRS) and the University of Bordeaux, has used the material from previous expeditions in the archaeological site, discovered in 1929. In particular, they studied an excavated collection by Kenneth D. Williamson between 1975 and 1976, formed by forty kilos of ochre, twenty-one grinders and tools to squash the colorant, and two pebbles with red shades. According to Rosso, this is an exceptionally wide collection, “which allows us to reconstruct the different stages of the treatment, and shows how inhabitants in Porc-Epic processed a wide variety of ochre with tools from different raw materials to make diverse kinds of powder, to be used in different situations, symbolically or functionally”. For instance, a pebble with red shades -homogeneously spread, understood as a painted pebble or object used as an ink pad, shows a possible use of colorants for symbolic activities.

The study enabled the researchers to discover that colorants were processed with different techniques in paleolithic societies: grinding, scraping and pitting. These techniques did not change substantially over the studied 4.500-year period, which “seems to reflect a cultural adaptation transmitted over time”, says Rosso, who will give an oral thesis examination in the UB about this thorough study on Porc-Epic ochre, under the supervision of the researchers D’Errico, João Zilhão (SERP-UB and ICREA) and Josep M. Fullola (SERP-UB).

Colorants with signs of use have been analysed under light and confocal microscopy. Other colorants found near the site were collected with the aim of reproducing –experimentally- the squashing techniques. The study includes a comparative study of powder samples created by the Hamar women from South East Ethiopia, who currently use ochre with different functions in their daily life.

 

Article Reference:
D. E. Rosso, F. d’Errico, A. Queffelec. «Patterns of change and continuity in ochre use during the late Middle Stone Age of the Horn of Africa: The Porc-Epic Cave record». PLOS ONE, May 2017. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177298



 

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