Early art — painting with ochre

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Ochre is an earthly clay containing iron ore and varying amounts of clay and sand. It ranges in color from yellow to deep orange or brown. It is a source of pigments that today are mainly used in paints; although the Himba women in northwestern Namibia still apply ochre to their hair. 

There are people who suggest that ochre is the basis for the earliest human form of art and symbolism.  There is ample evidence that yellow and red ochre pigments were used in prehistoric and ancient times by many different civilizations on different continents. It has been used to decorate pots, shells, animal skulls, cave walls, human skin, and to commemorate the deceased.

Ochre use became widespread in the Middle Stone Age, a period of about 50,000 to 280,000 years ago. During this period of time. there seems to have been a preference for the color red. Numerous sites in Europe and western Asia show that our closest evolutionary kin, the Neanderthals, also used ochre at least as far back as 250,000 years ago. 

Evidence shows  that the practice of ochre painting has been prevalent among Australian people for over 40,000 years. Recently discovered evidence shows that the mining of this mineral resource took place in the Americas some 12,000 years ago. 

An interesting example of ochre use can be seen in the cave paintings depicting common animals of the day discovered at Lascaux, France. These date back to the Paleolithic period, some 17,000 years ago.  Here also are found abalone shells used to hold pigment and a quartzite stone used for grinding up pigments like charcoal and ochre.  At least one artist had used a thin bone from the front leg of a wolf that had one end dipped in ochre to use as a paint brush.

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