This dissertation is meant to provoke thought into better ways of testing our theories about ochre use by hominids. Archaeologists have used this material to imply the origins of symbolic behaviour, art, and religion itself – so why, if it is so important, is there no set procedure for testing and excavating it?

To test means that a methodological approach should be in place to ensure a systematic way of recording ochre, it’s mineral content, colour, distribution, relationships to geological correlations and pigmentation on stone tools etc. From this, new theoretical interpretations of behaviour can be developed.

These interpretations should be tested on an inter-site and inter-regional scale so that similarities and differences can be properly assessed. In this way, ochre could be a good marker for determining hominid selected aspects of behaviour throughout the Palaeolithic, irrespective of species. Here, the focus will be on the period referred to as the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic transition and Middle Stone Age (MSA) sites, but methods for recording ochre should exist throughout the Palaeolithic to the present and wherever it is found in the archaeological record.

It could be argued that ochre, as a “tool” has been ignored in the archaeological record, either due to our preoccupation with origins research, or the aesthetic enticement of rock-art as finished product. Preconceived notions of progress are still inherent in the reconstructions of hominid behaviours. Also, ochre has been deflected as an interpretive alternative as it has been rooted in essentialist ideas that language cannot exist without symbolic capability and visa versa.

The use of iron oxides as pigments plays a central role in current assessments of the origins of modern behaviour, in particular the use of symbols as a means of communication. A clear dichotomy exists in recent discussions between those who see a modern cognitive threshold crossed only at the Middle-to-Upper-Palaeolithic transition (Barham 1998:709).

The continual use of ochre as interpretation for symbolic use for generalised theories, which are untested and unsubstantiated, is partly due to the lack of a particular methodological framework and ignorance of our own socio-political positioning. Although ochre is found and recorded at sites dating to the Middle Palaeolithic and Middle Stone Age, it is treated as domestic refuse (McBrearty & Brooks 2000:524). Furthermore, many early reports of Middle Stone Age sites in South Africa mention ochre and grindstones, but these were often discounted due to the uncontrolled nature of early excavations and the possibility of mixing with overlying Later Stone Age debris (McBrearty & Brooks 2000:526).

Human origins research has become complacent projecting what we understand to be symbolic today onto the past, which says more about the inherent biases within the discipline and competition for funding, than it does about prehistoric human behaviour. I believe that a methodological approach to ochre will be useful to begin dissolving the dichotomies we are struggling with between Neanderthal and Homo sapien behaviour. If ochre were given the same significance as lithic and ceramic artefacts, whether found in the same context as “art” or not, much more could be added to our research into hominid behaviour and their social systems.

It is accepted by most archaeologists that there was a dramatic shift in cultural and symbolic evidence during the time Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) co-existed in Europe. Ochre use is one of the “many scenarios for the origins of language focussed on the middle and later stages of the Upper Palaeolithic period as a source of evidence for the first use of symbols” (Deacon 1997:370). Some believe that Neanderthals did not significantly change their stone tools for 100,000 years because they did not have language. But a highly complex culture such as the Aboriginal societies in Australia would be invisible to an archaeologist 10,000 years from now.

Examples will be provided of sites where interpretations of ochre have been attempted, discussing the contexts and form this mineral has been found in. Like lithics and pottery, we should determine ochre’s origin geologically, look for trading possibilities, how it was stored, if there is any relevant spatial distribution in relation to other artefacts and microscopic or crystal analysis to back our theories. Furthermore, I will draw on ethnographical and evolutionary/psychological anthropology to illustrate the possible uses of ochre by early humans.