45,000 years ago, in an area that is now part of Ethiopia, humans found a roomy cave at the base of a limestone cliff and turned it into a special kind of workshop.
Inside, they built up a cache of over 40 kilograms of reddish stones high in iron oxide. Using a variety of tools, they ground the stones into different colored powders: deep reds, glowing yellows, rose grays.
Then they treated the powder by heating it or mixing it with other ingredients to create the world’s first paint.
For at least 4,500 years, people returned to this cave, known today as Porc-Epic, covering its walls in symbols and inking their bodies and clothes.
Some anthropologists call it the first artist’s workshop.
Now, a new study in PLoS One suggests that the cave offers us a new way to understand cultural continuity in the Middle Stone Age, when humans were first becoming sophisticated toolmakers and artisans. Paleoscientists Daniela Eugenia Rosso, Francesco d’Errico, and Alain Queffelec have sorted through the 4,213 pieces of ochre found in the cave, analyzing the layers of history they represent.
They argue that Porc-Epic is a rare continuous record of how humans pass on knowledge and rituals across dozens of generations.
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