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.
Many Middle Stone Age (MSA) sites have evidence of the regular collection and use of ochre. Sibudu (KwaZulu- Natal, South Africa) has a large MSA ochre assemblage of over 9000 pieces from layers dating between ~77 ka and ~38 ka. There are 682 pieces with signs of use. All usetraces were examined and activity categories were defined based on published ochre experiments. The most frequent markings on ochre pieces are grinding striations that are smoothed by subsequent rubbing. Grinding and rubbing also occur independently on many pieces. Scored pieces are rare, but are more common in the pre-Still Bay (~77 ka) industry than elsewhere in the sequence. Some scored pieces may represent deliberate engravings. Markings acquired during powder-production are most numerous in the assemblage. Powder was mostly produced from bright-red pieces, but scoring was mainly performed on brown-red pieces. Pieces with mica inclusions are not common, but were favoured for powder production. Ochre powder was used as an aggregate in hafting adhesives, but other possible applications are as paint or as a substance to aid hide tanning.
Rifkin , R.F. 2011 . Assessing the efficacy of red ochre as a prehistoric hidetanning ingredient . Journal of African Archaeology 9 ( 2 ), 131 - 158 .
Rifkin , R.F. , d’Errico , F. , Dayet , L. & Summers , B. 2015 . Assessing the photoprotective effects of red ochre on
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Rifkin , R. F. “Assessing the Efficacy of Red Ochre as a Prehistoric HideTanning Ingredient.” Journal of African Archaeology 9
. 168, 202–3. Marx therefore speaks of the ‘interdependent branches of the collective production of a whole society’ and of the ‘bond’ which holds it together. Not only are the branches of cattle-breeding, which produces hides, tanning, which produces leather, and shoemaking, which works leather up