Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Prehistoric Body Painting Volume 53 Number 4, July/August 2000
by Elizabeth J. Himelfarb

[image] Excavations at the Twin Rivers Cave in Zambia revealed more than 300 pieces of pigment. (Courtesy University of Bristol) [LARGER IMAGE]

The discovery of pigment in an early Middle Stone Age deposit in Zambia suggests that early humans engaged in body painting rituals as early as 400,000 years ago, according to Lawrence Barham of the University of Bristol, England.

Barham was in Zambia studying hominid remains in 1993 when he took a weekend trip to the Twin Rivers Cave, excavated in the 1950s by University of California at Berkeley's J. Desmond Clark. There, he collected material from the old excavation trenches for uranium-series dating. The result was surprisingly old at 230,000 B.P., Barham tells ARCHAEOLOGY. In 1996, back at the cave to gather more samples, Barham found four pieces of pigment. Analysis of a yellow-stained cobble of quartzite with use-battered edges and other, similarly worn tools from Clark's earlier excavation showed the staining to derive from processing pigments similar to those Barham found.

In 1999, Barham returned to Twin Rivers to lead an investigation of his own. In an uncontaminated pocket of sediment dated 400,000 to 200,000 years old, he recovered Middle Stone Age artifacts, animal bone, and pigment--"not just a few pieces, but hundreds this time," Barham says--brown, red, yellow, purple, blue, and pink, all derived from locally available minerals. Nine of the 307 pieces excavated last summer "show signs of having been rubbed or ground to reproduce, presumably, a powder," Barham says, "unambiguous evidence of the systematic collection and processing of pigments over a long period."

Barham believes the pigments were used primarily for ritual body painting, and perhaps for cave painting as well, although no direct evidence remains after so many thousands of years. He explains, "the variety of colors used at Twin Rivers and their differing sources and need for processing tells me that a simple functional explanation for their presence just won't do. Why bother to collect and grind a particularly hard type of iron oxide when a softer material that is nearby would work just as well as a hide preserver or medicine? It was the color that was sought after, not the iron content."

Barham continues, "If we link pigments with group activities such as ritual, then language is part of the equation. Rituals are grounded in a shared understanding of the significance of the events and the rules that govern the performance. the most efficient and unambiguous means of communicating such information. Perhaps the development of ritual and language are linked, one expressed through the other with pigment left as the only material trace."

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America