15,000-year-old red-shell beads earliest example of organic red pigment

15,000-year-old red-shell beads earliest example of organic red pigment

Decorating the living space, body, and clothes with color has been practiced for thousands of years. While the habitual use of red mineral pigments like iron-oxide (ochre) by anatomically modern humans is believed to have started in Africa about 140,000 years ago, the earliest documentation of the use of organic plant or animal-based red pigments is known only from 6,000 years ago. 

But now, archaeologists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology and the Sorbonne and the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM) report the oldest reliable evidence of organic red pigment use 15,000 years ago in the Early Natufian Era in the Kebara cave on Mount Carmel near Haifa. These were the first sedentary hunter-gatherers in the Levant. 

Analyses using Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS), together with Raman Spectroscopy analyses of 10 red-stained shell beads enabled the team to detect and describe the use of a colorant made of Rubiaceae plant roots to color personal adornments there. 

Map of the distribution of Early Natufian sites in the Levant; B: Detailed map of the region of Kebara cave in the Southern Levant with the position of the shoreline (Dr Laurent David/Wikimedia Commons)
They wrote that their findings added a previously unknown behavioral aspect of Natufian societies – namely a well-established tradition of non-dietary plant processing at the beginning of the sedentary lifestyle. Through a combined multidisciplinary approach, their study “broadens the perspectives on the ornamental practices and the operating chains of pigmenting materials during a crucial period in human history.

The team added that the perception by humans of the red color greatly influences their affective, cognitive, and behavioral responses in achievement, affiliation, and attraction contexts. A red effect is found to be most prominent in males, because wearing red enhances one’s dominance, aggressiveness, and testosterone level, facilitating competitive positive outcomes, they continued. 

Red ochre served various purposes, from symbolic and ritual displays to utilitarian or functional uses, depending on the context.  Many of these were recognized in the Natufian archaeological culture, which marked the transition from hunter-gatherer Palaeolithic societies into fully-fledged agricultural economies of the Neolithic era, they wrote. 

The Natufians were the first hunter-gatherers to adopt a sedentary lifestyle, a dramatic economic and societal change associated with growing social complexity as reflected also in various aspects of their material culture involving red ochre. Dead bodies were wrapped in textiles colored with the dye or bones that were decorated once the body was decomposed. As for their art, human- and animal-like figurines or decorated objects with incised geometric patterns were decorated with ochre – and personal adornments with thousands of shell, bone, and tooth beads were as well. 

The Kebara cave is located on the western slope of Mount Carmel about 60 meters above sea level and about 2.5 km from the current shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea (but about eight to 13 km 15,000 years ago when the sea level was about 80 m lower than today 

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