Subj: Red Ocher use in paleolithic burial cave practices
Date: 8/14/2006 1:36:12 AM Central Standard Time
Stone Age Code Red: Scarlet symbols emerge in Israeli cave
The Qafzeh Cave in Israel contains skeletal remains of modern Homo sapiens that are more than 90,000 years old, as well as more-recent signs of human occupation. Investigators now say that red ocher found in Qafzeh Cave's oldest sections supports the controversial theory that symbolic thinking, a hallmark of modern-day human thought, arose deep in the Stone Age.
HUE CLUE. An ancient lump of red ocher excavated at Qafzeh Cave contains evidence of scraping by stone implements.
G. Laron, Inst. of Archaeology/Hebrew Univ.
Archaeologists traditionally have held that the assigning of separate meanings to certain items or colors emerged no more than 50,000 years ago, with the appearance of Upper Paleolithic cultures.
In the Middle East and Eurasia, however, "many symbolic behaviors that are considered modern existed for a time [before the Upper Paleolithic] and then disappeared, to be reinvented time and again," contends Erella Hovers of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who directed the Qafzeh project.
Her argument hinges on the discovery of 71 pieces of red ocher, a form of iron oxide typically used as a pigment, as well as ocher-stained stone tools, near several of Qafzeh's oldest H. sapiens graves. The same sediment holds the remains of large hearths and, intriguingly, scattered shells of inedible mollusks Preliminary chemical analyses indicate that the ocher had been heated.
In the August-October Current Anthropology, Hovers and her coworkers propose that, more than 90,000 years ago, lumps of ocher from nearby sources were brought to the cave, carefully heated in hearths to yield specific hues of red, and used with the shells in possibly symbolic activities related to burying the dead.
Evidence of similar ocher use near human graves doesn't appear again at Qafzeh Cave until 12,700 years ago, the scientists say.
The precise meanings of the ocher-based practices remain unknown, Hovers notes. Many nonindustrial societies today regard the color red as symbolic of fertility or vitality.
Prehistoric artwork and other symbolic expressions commonly occurred in large populations that stayed for extended periods at resource-rich locations, Hovers says. In the small, nomadic groups typical of Stone Age Middle East, a capacity for symbolic behavior would have surfaced only for special activities at designated sites, such as the interment of the dead at Qafzeh Cave, she argues.
Several commentaries appear with the new report and offer mixed reactions to Hovers' analysis of the Qafzeh artifacts.
According to Sally McBrearty of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, for example, ocher processing at Qafzeh adds to evidence of "the very great antiquity of the color red as a symbolic category." Engraved ocher dates to 77,000 years ago in South Africa (SN: 1/19/02, p. 40: Available to subscribers at http://www.sciencenews.org/20020119/note...), she notes.
However, Richard G. Klein of Stanford University argues that ocher use represented merely a step toward advanced symbolic culture, which he says H. sapiens established around 50,000 years ago.
An Early Case of Color Symbolism
Ochre Use by Modern Humans in Qafzeh Cave1 by Erella Hovers, Shimon Ilani, Ofer Bar-Yosef, and Bernard Vandermeersch
Prehistoric archaeology provides the temporal depth necessary for understanding the evolution of the unique human ability to construct and use complex symbol systems. The long-standing focus on language, a symbol system that does not leave direct evidence in the material record, has led to interpretations based on material proxies of this abstract behavior. The ambiguities resulting from this situation may be reduced by focusing on systems that use material objects as the carriers of their symbolic contents, such as color symbolism. Given the universality of some aspects of color symbolism in extant human societies, this article focuses on the 92,000-year-old ochre record from Qafzeh Cave terrace to examine whether the human capacity for symbolic behavior could have led to normative systems of symbolic culture as early as Middle Paleolithic times. Geochemical and petrographic analyses are used to test the hypothesis that ochre was selected and mined specifically for its color. Ochre is found to occur through time in association with other finds unrelated to mundane tasks. It is suggested that such associations fulfill the hierarchical relationships that are the essence of a symbolic referential framework and are consistent with the existence of symbolic culture. The implications of these findings for understanding the evolution of symbolic culture in the contexts of the African and Levantine prehistoric records are explored.
ERELLA HOVERS is a lecturer in the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Mt. Scopus, Jerusalem 91905, Israel [firstname.lastname@example.org]). Her fields of interest include Middle Paleolithic lithic technology and human ecology, the evolution of symbolic behavior and of human cognition and consciousness, and the archaeology of the Late Pliocene and early Pleistocene.SHIMON ILANI is a researcher in the Geological Survey of Israel. His main interests are petrography, mineralogy, and geochemistry.OFER BAR-YOSEF is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University. He is interested in the cultural sequence of the Middle Paleolithic, the demise of the Neandertals, the emergence of Upper Paleolithic entities, and the Neolithic revolution in the Near East.BERNARD VANDERMEERSCH, now retired, was a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Bordeaux. He is interested in human evolution, particularly in the issues of Neandertals and modern humans and their cultural and environmental context.