Milk, paint, wild beasts and an ancient African mystery

People were making paint long before previously thought

A milk and ochre paint mixture used 49,000 years ago at Sibudu, South Africa. Researchers used chemical analysis to determine the origins of paint flakes found on ancient stones.

Around 49,000 years ago, someone in what is today South Africa mixed milk with ochre to produce a paint mixture.

What the paint was used for remains unknown. But what is startling is that it was made earlier than the first previously known use of the paint — 47,000 years earlier.

The mixture was preserved on a small stone flake excavated by Lyn Wadley, of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, at a site about 40 km (25 miles) north of the port city of Durban.

“Our analyses show that this ochre-based mixture was… a paint medium that could have been applied to a surface or to human skin,” Wadley and a group of co-authors wrote in a paper just published in the academic journal Plos One.

The oldest documented use of milk in a pigment mixture was from Greece around 2,200 years ago. It was a technique used as an art medium up to the Renaissance.

The finding is also significant because it long predates the introduction of domesticated cattle into the region, which took place between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago.

Chemical analysis revealed the milk was not from a domestic cow but a wild bovid, such as a buffalo or an antelope species. So it was probably extracted by killing a wild animal that was lactating.

And its use?

“It may have been used as decorative paint. It could have been used to decorate animal hides. We have not found the evidence for the way that they used it, we just know that they used it,” Wadley said.

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