Assessing the Efficacy of Red Ochre as a Prehistoric Hide Tanning Ingredient

Journal of African Archaeology
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  • 1 Institute for Human Evolution, Department of Archaeology, School of Geography, Archaeology & Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand

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Over the past four decades, several functional hypotheses have been proposed for archaeological ochre. Ochre has been shown to have antiseptic properties and to inhibit the bacterial production of collagenase. These qualities are repeatedly cited to support the hypothesis that red ochre was used to preserve or ‘tan’ animal hides in prehistory. If clothing made from hides was worn by Homo sapiens in Africa, then hide tanning could have formed a part of the trend towards increasingly modern technological and social advances during the Middle to Late Pleistocene. This paper presents the results of an experimental study exploring the efficacy of ochre as a treatment for making unprocessed animal hide resistant to putrification and desiccation. This study shows that certain types of ochre do preserve animal hide. The implications of this technological advance for the emergence of human behavioural modernity in Africa are discussed.


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