New light on ancient beauty rituals

The ground-breaking discovery of a 100 000-year-old cosmetic toolkit in a cave on the Cape coast, which sheds light on the sophistication of South Africa’s earliest modern humans, has been featured in the latest edition of the prestigious journal, Science.

A team from the University of the Witwatersrand, led by Professor Christopher Henshilwood, discovered two abalone shells containing fragile traces of an ochre-rich mixture in the much-excavated Blombos cave in 2008. Excitement mounted when the team also found fragments of animal bones and shards of stone nearby.

They realised they had unearthed an elementary “toolkit” for grinding and mixing fine, red ochre powder, probably for the purpose of decoration, painting and skin protection.

But the team had no way of establishing the exact age of the artefacts. They decided to send them to the Louvre Museum in Paris, where a sophisticated dating technique known as optically stimulated luminescence revealed the truth: the “toolkit” was 100 000 years old.

“This find indicates that people were capable of advanced thought at least 20 000 years earlier than was previously believed,” said Dr Karen van Niekerk, a team member based at the University of Bergen, Norway.

“They were able to conceptualise what they wanted to make, go out and collect the raw materials, create the mixture and use it.”

Henshilwood added that the abalone shells were the earliest evidence anywhere of the use of containers.

“The find demonstrates that [early] humans had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning,” he said. “We know that most, or all, homo sapiens are from Africa, and we’re interested in their intelligence before they left for Asia and Europe.”

For Van Niekerk there is a “lovely human touch” to the find: in the bottom of one of the shells one can see “how the person’s finger stirred the mixture, and while doing so, a small piece of sand at the tip of the finger scratched the shell in a characteristic pattern”.

Following the publication of their findings in Science, Van Niekerk said the team had been “overwhelmed by media attention” from journalists across the world. “We never imagined this would have such impact,” she said. “For the team the discovery is wonderful because it makes us feel closer to our ancestors. We all want to know how they lived.”

Blombos cave, about 300 kilometres east of Cape Town, has yielded rich archaeological finds since it was first excavated in 1991. Marine shell beads, primitive tools and human teeth have provided evidence that homo sapiens inhabited the cave from the Middle to Late Stone Age periods.

But it was the discovery of abstract engravings on ochre that caused the most excitement in scientific circles.

Ochre, a reddish-yellow pigment formed from mineral oxides found in earth or rock, has been used for decoration and ritual since earliest times. It is still used by some Xhosa and Zulu people for cultural purposes and as a natural sunscreen.

“Personal ornaments are especially strong indicators of symbolism, which we associate with modern human behaviour,” said Van Niekerk.

For Sarah Wurtz, senior researcher at the Wits Institute for Human Evolution, the latest discovery is “cutting-edge”.

She said there was “worldwide interest in trying to pinpoint when we became truly human in our thoughts and our behaviour. This ochre kit from Blombos cave ... provides early evidence for long-term planning through the sourcing, combination and storing of substances made from ochre to enhance technology.”

Henshilwood holds the South African research chair in the origins of modern human behaviour, funded by the National Research Foundation. His team includes archaeologists from France, Norway and Australia.

“Our Middle Stone Age archaeological heritage is of such outstanding universal significance that the population of the world can relate to it and understand its relevance to their own development and what it means to be human,” said Wurtz.

“This is exactly the type of research findings that the institute strives to use to build international awareness and national pride in evolutionary roots in South Africa.”

From this week, the abalone shells will be on display at Cape Town’s Iziko South African Museum with other artefacts from Blombos cave.

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