Body art made its mark 300,000 years ago, scientists claim

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The use of coloured pigments in early forms of body art may have begun many tens of thousands of years earlier than previously thought, according to a study of artefacts found at an ancient archaeological site in Africa.

Scientists working at the Twin Rivers hilltop cave near Lusaka in Zambia have found evidence for the use of colours - possibly for body painting - as early as 300,000 years ago.

This would predate the known use of coloured pigments in cave art by more than 200,000 years and, if confirmed, mark the point when humans began to experiment with paint.

Lawrence Barham, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool, said an analysis of coloured stains on rock tools found at the site indicated that early humans were grinding ochre pigments long before they were known to be used for cave paintings.

"My work in Zambia is beginning to show that, at least in this one small part of central Africa, the use of mineral pigments or ochres as colours goes back at least 300,000 years," Dr Lawrence said yesterday.

"There is a long period between the appearance of rock art about 32,000 years ago - which is strong evidence of colour symbolism - and this more indirect, ambiguous evidence in the archaeological record of Africa," Dr Barham told the British Association's annual meeting at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

Archaeologists digging at the Twin Rivers site found ochre pigments of various colours, including red, yellow, brown, black and "sparkling purple", at levels in the ground that correspond to 300,000 years ago - long before the rise of modern man, Homo sapiens.

Dr Barham said the evidence pointed to the use of coloured pigments as part of symbolic rituals by the primitive Stone Age people who lived there. They possibly belonged to Homo heidelbergensis, a species with a relatively large brain.

"If you were to argue that these iron oxides are purely functional, and are of no historic value, how do you explain away the range of colours that are being selected from different places in the landscape?" Dr Barham said.

"If it was just the iron element, any of them would do, whether it was the red or the yellow. Some colours are closer to the site than others so people are deliberately selecting the pigments for the colours, that's how I interpret this," he told the meeting.

Until now, the only unambiguous use of colour in symbolic art is found in our own species in the form of rock art, beads and pigments - such as the famous cave paintings of Lascaux in France.

In Europe the earliest cave art appears no earlier than 40,000 years ago, long after Homo sapiens originated in east Africa about 200,000 years ago, Dr Lawrence said.

"In South Africa, at Blombos Cave, shell beads - some ochre-stained - have been found with engraved blocks of red ochre that suggest colour symbolism existed 75,000 years ago. But that is still less than half the age of Homo sapiens," he said.

It is possible that an interest in the use of coloured pigments for symbolic purposes developed at the same time that early humans made the radical shift from hand-held stone axes to finer stone tools tied to wooden or bone handles. "It may seem a simple development but it is the foundation for all the technologies we use today. It's called composite technologies," Dr Lawrence said.

"I think by that time we have not just language, but the development of quite a complex language, which allows the planning that you see in the artefacts but also the planning to take something out of the environment and to change its meaning by putting it on your body."

It may, however, be difficult to prove unless the art itself was preserved. "We'd love to find a bog body of that age which is covered in tattoos, but that is not going to happen," Dr Lawrence said.