With its rust and sand-coloured pigments, ochre was used at cave sites for thousands of years to paint pictures of animals and hand prints of our long-gone ancestors.
Now, the remains of stone tools left by a community of cave dwellers in East Africa 40,000 years suggests they were carefully grinding it to paint themselves are create prehistoric art.
The findings are shedding new light on Stone Age culture, suggesting that these people may have had far more artisan flare than previously thought.
Fragments of the tools were found at a cave near the city of Dire Dawa in Ethiopia.
Researchers at the University of Bordeaux analysed 21 tools taken from Porc Epic cave, a cave system known as an important site for early humans since the discovery of ancient teeth and bones in the 1930s.
Evidence suggests that early humans concocted a Stone Age super glue from mixing red ochre with the gum of Acacia trees.
But some groups held that the coloured pigments obtained from grinding were used for more symbolic purposes, such as body painting or creating patterns and designs.
To dig into the history of the rocks, the team at Bordeaux used X-ray and spectroscopy to scrutinise the ancient stone tools recovered from the site.
Rather than bashing the coloured stones to pieces, the researchers revealed the groups used a variety of tools were to carefully prepare the pigment.
By using different tools for different jobs, they would have been able to produce a variety of pigment preparations – from courser grains for mixing as glue, to finer powders used for body paint.
What’s more, the group also found that one of the stones may have been dipped in ochre ‘paint’ and used as a stamp to decorate soft objects.
‘This study analyses the largest collection of such tools, found at [the site], in levels dated around 40,000 years ago,’ said Dr Daniela Rosso, a researcher at Bordeaux and first author of the study, published today in PLoS One.
Dr Rosso told MailOnline: ‘Our findings show ochre powder of different colors and coarseness were produced at Porc-Epic Cave.
‘This shows that ochre powder was likely employed for different functions, that could be utilitarian and/or symbolic in nature. This indicates a high degree of behavioral complexity.’
According to the team, the evidence for cave painting at Porc-Epic during this period is lacking.
In Europe, the oldest known evidence of cave painting is believed to be a red ochre circle, adorning the wall of a cave in Northern Spain, dating back 39,000 years.
But markings found in Indonesia could predate this, with evidence of hand outlines made in using calcite potentially pushing 40,000-years-old.
While the evidence in Ethiopia does not provide evidence of cave painting, it alludes to a complex set of practices for the preparation of ochre, highlighting the important functional and possibly cultural role the pigments played in Stone Age life.
Dr Rosso added: ‘The next step in our study will be to analyse the ochre fragments found in the same levels as these tools, in order to reconstruct more comprehensively the technical processes involved in ochre treatment.’