Ochre - The Oldest Known Natural Pigment in the World

Natural Pigment Called Ochre

The Painted Cliffs, sandstone stained with iron oxide forming an intricate pattern, Maria Island National Park, Tasmania, Australia, Australasia
Grant Dixon/ Lonely Planet Images/ Getty Images

Ochre (rarely spelled ocher) and hematite (haematite) are generic names for an ancient pigment--a prehistoric source of red-yellow color for everything from rock art paintings to pottery to human tattoos. Ochre is the earliest known pigment used by humans to paint our world--perhaps as long ago as 300,000 years. Other documented or implied uses are as medicines, as a preservative agent for animal hide preparation, and as a loading agent for adhesives (called mastics).

Geochemically speaking, ochre and hematite refer to several forms of iron oxide, a type of clay or sandy clay mineral found in natural deposits in many different regions of the world. The English word comes from the Greek ochros for "yellow"; and from Middle English oker, Old French ocre and Latin ochra.

How Old Is Ochre?

Ochre is very common on archaeological sites world-wide. The earliest possible use of ochre so far is from a Homo erectus site about 285,000 years old, GnJh-03 in the Kapthurin formation of Kenya, where a total of five kilograms (11 pounds) of ochre in more than 70 pieces was discovered. Another early site is Twin Rivers in Zambia, dated to 230,000 years ago. Often associated with religious ceremonies, ochre was (and still is) a popular pigment choice for artists, beginning right with the first art of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) in Africa called Howiesons Poort/Stillbay. The early modern human assemblages of 100,000 year old MSA sites including Blombos Cave and Klein Kliphuis in South Africa have been found to include examples of engraved ochre, slabs of ochre with carved patterns cut into the surface.

By 250,000-200,000 years ago, Neanderthals were using ochre, at the Maastricht Belvédère site in The Netherlands (Roebroeks) and the Benzu rockshelter in Spain. Duarte (2014) suggests that using red ochre as a pigment in tattoos (and otherwise ingested) may have had a role in evolution, as it would have been a source of iron to the human brain, perhaps making us smarter.

The presence of ochre mixed with milk proteins on an artifact from a 49,000 year old MSA level at Sibudu cave in South Africa, is suggested to have been used to make the ochre liquid, probably by killing a lactating bovid (Villa 2015). Certainly Upper Paleolithic cave art in Europe and Australia contain generous use of the mineral.

Ritual Use of Ochre

Ochre is often associated with human burials: for example, the Upper Paleolithic cave site Arene Candide has an early use of ochre at a burial of a young man 23,500 years ago. The site of Paviland Cave in the UK, dated to about the same time, had a burial so soaked in red ochre he was (somewhat mistakenly) called the "Red Lady".

Colors and Sourcing

Ochre comes in a variety of colors, from brown to red to yellow; and interestingly enough, it does change color under different environmental circumstances. Red ochre is associated with sesquioxide of iron (i.e., it forms in areas where the soil is well-drained), while the yellow ochre (called limonite or goethite) is hydrated iron oxide (i.e., where iron was allowed to freely combine with water). Yellow or brown ochre can turn to red as the mineral picks up water and converts to hematite.

A wide variety of terms for what used to be simply "ochre" are becoming more common in scholarly records such as ferrous oxide or iron oxide, limonite, hematite, red ochre and yellow ochre.

The ability to discern different mineral and chemical components of these varieties of ochre have allowed geochemists to identify the sources of various ochres, providing insight into how far our ancient ancestors would walk to get a good paint. The different types are determined using trace element analyses, instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA), inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry, x-ray diffraction (XRD), optical emission (ICP-OES) and petrography.

Recent research (Dayet et al. 2015) at Diepkloof Rockshelter, a Middle Stone Age site in South Africa, used a variety of these methods to identify both local and non-local ochre sources among the thousands of pieces of ochre recovered in the Howiesons Poort levels dated 105,000-83,000 years ago. Non-local sources were considered anything more than a day's walk from the shelter; some are as far as 25 kilometers from the site.

  • Read about 100,000 Year Old Paint Pots at Blombos Cave

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Ancient PIgments, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Dayet L, Le Bourdonnec FX, Daniel F, Porraz G, and Texier PJ. 2015. Ochre Provenance and Procurement Strategies During The Middle Stone Age at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, South Africa. Archaeometry:n/a-n/a.

Dayet L, Texier PJ, Daniel F, and Porraz G. 2013. Ochre resources from the Middle Stone Age sequence of Diepkloof Rock Shelter, Western Cape, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(9):3492-3505.

Duarte CM. 2014. Red ochre and shells: clues to human evolution. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 29(10):560-565.

Eiselt BS, Popelka-Filcoff RS, Darling JA, and Glascock MD. 2011. Hematite sources and archaeological ochres from Hohokam and O’odham sites in central Arizona: an experiment in type identification and characterization. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(11):3019-3028.

Erdogu B, and Ulubey A. 2011. Colour symbolism in the prehistoric architecture of central Anatolia and Raman Spectroscopic Investigation of red ochre in Chalcolithic Çatalhöyük. Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 30(1):1-11.

Henshilwood C, D'Errico F, Van Niekerk K, Coquinot Y, Jacobs Z, Lauritzen S-E, Menu M, and Garcia-Moreno R. 2011. A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Science 334:219-222.

Lombard M. 2007. The gripping nature of ochre: The association of ochre with Howiesons Poort adhesives and Later Stone Age mastics from South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution 53(4):406-419.

Mackay A, and Welz A. 2008. Engraved ochre from a Middle Stone Age context at Klein Kliphuis in the Western Cape of South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(6):1521-1532.

Moyo S, Mphuthi D, Cukrowska E, Henshilwood CS, van Niekerk K, and Chimuka L. 2016. Blombos Cave: Middle Stone Age ochre differentiation through FTIR, ICP OES, ED XRF and XRD. Quaternary International 404, Part B:20-29.

Popelka-Filcoff RS, Miksa EJ, Robertson JD, Glascock MD, and Wallace H.

2008. Elemental analysis and characterization of ochre sources from Southern Arizona. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(3):752-762.

Rifkin RF. 2012. Processing ochre in the Middle Stone Age: Testing the inference of prehistoric behaviours from actualistically derived experimental data. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 31(2):174-195.

Roebroeks W, Sier MJ, Kellberg Nielsen T, De Loecker D, Pares JM, Arps CES, and Mucher HJ. 2012. Use of red ochre by early Neandertals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(6):1889-1894.

Stafford MD, Frison GC, Stanford D, and Zeimans G. 2003. Digging for the color of life: Paleoindian red ochre mining at the Powars II site, Platte County, Wyoming, U.S.A. Geoarchaeology 18(1):71-90.

Wadley L. 2010. Cemented ash as a receptacle or work surface for ochre powder production at Sibudu, South Africa, 58,000 years ago. Journal of Archaeological Science 37(10):2397-2406.

Wadley L, Williamson B, and Lombard M. 2004. Ochre in hafting in Middle Stone Age southern Africa: a practical role. Antiquity 78(301):661-675.

Villa P, Pollarolo L, Degano I, Birolo L, Pasero M, Biagioni C, Douka K, Vinciguerra R, Lucejko JJ, and Wadley L. 2015. A Milk and Ochre Paint Mixture Used 49,000 Years Ago at Sibudu, South Africa. PLoS ONE 10(6):e0131273.

Wadley L. 2009. Post-depositional heating may cause over-representation of red-coloured ochre in stone age sites. The South African Archaeological Bulletin 64(190):166-171.