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 Stone Age signs of complexity), 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.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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