A Brief History of History subhead image

show/hide words to know

Fertility: the capability to have children. ... more

Middle Stone Age: a stone tool industry that originated in Africa from 280,000 years ago. ... more

Ochre: a soft, colored stone that can be ground into paint. ... more

Ritual: a custom always done in the same away, sometimes for ceremonial purpose.

Symbol: an object or pattern used to represent something with a different meaning.

A colorful past (ochre)

It’s the color of anger. The color of love. The color that means stop. Perhaps no other color brings about emotions as strong as the color red does. But the history of this association is much deeper than you probably ever realized. Archaeologists have found evidence that humans have used the color red for painting for at least 160,000 years and likely much longer.

Rock art showing elephants painted at Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa using red ochre. This may have been painted for good luck during a hunt. Image by Ben Schoville.The pigment humans used for this is called ochre. Ochre is a soft rock that can be ground and mixed with water to make paint. Ochre comes in many colors but people have been choosing to use bright red ochre for a long time. At a cave on the coast of South Africa called Pinnacle Point, early modern humans were going to a single source of ochre for a very long time. What was it about this color that kept making them return for more?

Some archaeologists think that ochre is a symbol of life and fertility. In some cultures, red ochre is used during rituals. Others suggest that red ochre is used for hunting success, with the red symbolizing the spilled blood of the prey after a hunt. Still others have argued a more practical reason for using ochre because it can be used as a sunscreen and to keep insects off the skin.

Whatever its purpose, ochre began to be used in the Middle Stone Age in Africa. Modern human fossils, with anatomy similar to ours, also existed at this time. It seems likely that the use of ochre is part of a larger change in how humans were behaving. Humans who used ochre to make symbols were linking emotions with objects. The use of symbols shows a fairly advanced way of thinking. Whether you are “seeing red with anger” or you give a red rose to someone you love, the symbolism of the color red can still be felt today.

How did changes in the Earth’s climate affect our human ancestors?
Answer »

Be part of Ask An Anthropologist

By volunteering, or simply sending us feedback on the site. Scientists, teachers, writers, illustrators, and translators are all important to the program. If you are interested in helping with the website we have a volunteers page to get the process started.

Donate icon  Contribute