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Caveman cosmetics? Scientists say ocher tool kits date back 100,000 years.

Throughout history ocher has been used for art and adornment. Scientists report finding evidence of a 100,000-year-old cosmetics/paint workshop for producing a pigmented compound in a South African cave.

By Staff writer / October 13, 2011

A model has makeup applied backstage prior to the Dior Spring-Summer 2010 Haute Couture fashion collection in Paris in 2010.

Thibault Camus/AP/File

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Cosmetic giants Mabelline-Garnier or Helene Curtis standing on the shoulders of Stone Age artisans?

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An international team of scientists says it has uncovered evidence of an 100,000-year-old workshop and two tool kits for turning ocher into a kind of paint. Cultures throughout human history have used ocher as a pigment for art and adornment.

The find "documents deliberate planning, production, and curation of a pigmented compound, and the first recorded use of containers," writes Christopher Henshilwood, an anthropologist at the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, in an email exchange. The find indicates that humans at this period "had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning."

IN PICTURES: Painted Faces

The earliest evidence for ocher production dates back roughly 160,000 years, according to research published in 2007. The evidence came from caves in cliffs near South Africa's Mossel Bay, suggesting that humans had developed a sense of symbolism far earlier than previous studies had suggested.

Within the next 40,000 years the use of ocher would become widespread in the region, researchers say.

In 2009, another team, led by Dr. Henshilwood, unveiled the earliest direct evidence of ocher's symbolic use in artifacts dating back at east 75,000 years. In that case, designs were etched into objects made of ocher. The evidence was found in Blombos Cave, an opening in a seaside bluff roughly 180 miles east of Cape Town.

But nothing had turned up to shed light on ocher production at the time, which in turn would yield valuable clues about the state of human cognitive abilities during this period.

In a paper to be published Friday in the journal Science, Henshilwood and colleagues appears to open a window on the process.

Like the etched-ocher artifacts, the tool kits also were found in Blombos Cave. They were excavated from a layer of the cave floor with few other artifacts in it, suggesting to the team a kind of workshop for producing ocher-hued compounds.

The layer dated to 100,000 years ago. The two tool kits were found about 6 inches apart and consisted of grinding stones, stones used as hammers, and abalone shells that the occupants used as mixing containers.

In addition to the tools, the team found raw materials for converting ocher into what they say likely would have been paint: fatty bone, charcoal, powdered and larger-grained ocher, and quartz grains. With the fat from ground bone as a binder, the ingredients could have been mixed with a liquid to form paint.

Henshilwood says the team also found a flat, two-inch-long bone that apparently was used to remove the liquid from the shell, suggesting its use either as a rudimentary paintbrush or a palette knife to apply the paint to an object or a person.

The team had found evidence for ocher-processing in shallower, younger soil levels in the cave, so finding more wasn't a surprise, Henshilwood acknowledges.

"What was surprising was the excellent condition of these tool kits and the fact that they were in situ when discovered and hardly damaged," he says. "In effect, for us this was the equivalent of uncovering the 'smoking gun' – the best evidence to date for exactly how ocher processing was carried out in this early period" of humans' behavioral evolution."

IN PICTURES: Painted Faces

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