Ancient Art: How Red Pigments Tell a Story of Human History

By Adam R. Hemmings

· Israel,Archaeology

Colour has always been a language of expression for humanity. From the walls of caves to our very clothes, the use of vibrant hues has been a part of human expression for millennia. But did you know that the origins of organic red pigment, which adorns bodies and belongings today, can be traced back thousands of years?

A recent study sheds light on our ancient ancestors' artistic endeavours. Scientists have uncovered evidence dating back 15,000 years that reveals the earliest known use of organic red pigment by sedentary hunter-gatherers in the Levant region, in the Kebara Cave of Mount Carmel, Israel. You might wonder why this discovery matters. Well, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of our distant ancestors of the Natufian culture. These were among the first groups to embrace a more settled lifestyle, marking a crucial transition in human history.

Through meticulous analysis of red-stained shell beads using advanced scientific techniques like SEM-EDS and Raman Spectroscopy, researchers identified the use of colourants derived from roots of plants like Rubia spp., Asperula spp., and Gallium spp. These findings show an early tradition of non-dietary plant processing, suggesting that these ancient societies were not just hunters and gatherers but also skilled artisans and creators.

What's captivating is how this discovery echoes some narratives found in the Bible. While the exact timeline might differ, the Bible often references the use of colours in intricate details for the tabernacle, garments, and other aspects of worship and cultural significance. This ancient practice of adorning oneself or sacred spaces with vibrant hues seems to resonate across different cultures and times.

This revelation about Natufian societies adds a new layer to our understanding of human behaviour and societal development. It highlights the importance of art, expression, and the development of traditions even in the earliest settled communities. Moreover, it emphasises the resourcefulness of our ancestors, who, with their limited tools, were able to extract and use organic pigments for adornment—a practice that has transcended time and continues to be a part of our lives today.

This discovery reminds us of our shared history—a history where creativity, expression, and the beauty of colour have always been integral to human culture.