A recent discovery has added a new dimension to our understanding of prehistoric pigments. In an archaeological revelation, researchers have identified the oldest-known use of plants for producing red pigment, challenging our previous ideas about paints and how we created them. Here’s everything you need to know.
A Splash of Red in History
Archaeologist Laurent Davin was captivated when he saw a particularly vivid shade of red on 15,000-year-old shell beads from Kebara Cave in Israel. But while ochre has historically been the primary source of red pigment, Davin suspected a different origin for this unique hue. He was right.
Cutting-edge spectroscopy techniques confirmed that the beads were colored using red pigment derived from the roots of Rubiaceae plants, marking the earliest-known instance of plant-based red paint. The creators of this ancient red pigment belonged to the Natufian culture, the first hunter-gatherers to adopt more settled lifestyles in the Levant region. We bet you’ve never heard of this tribe before, because we certainly haven’t.
Art and Life
The Natufians’ extensive use of organic dyes represents a shift from older cultures in the region. Their sites, in contrast to earlier ones, revealed a multitude of artifacts—thousands of beads made from diverse materials like bone, teeth, shell, clay, and feathers.
This proliferation of ornamentation indicates a distinct change in the Natufians’ desire to express their identity, conveying messages and meanings beyond mere functionality. In short, art and expression were just as important as life-saving weapons and clothing.
The investigation into the plant origins of the red pigment involved advanced scanning studies and Raman spectroscopy. The absence of iron in the pigment ruled out ochre, while the high carbon content indicate an organic origin—a living plant.
Raman spectroscopy patterns consistently matched compounds found in the roots of Rubiaceae plants, commonly known as the madder family, thriving in the Mount Carmel region during the Pleistocene period.
Plant-Based Pigments’ Enduring Appeal
The Natufians’ choice of madder for their red pigment proved to be an excellent one, as evidenced by the enduring popularity of madder-derived red pigments throughout history.
From King Tut’s tomb to Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, the exceptional color produced by madder roots has left an indelible mark on various artistic expressions. The study challenges stereotypes of the Stone Age as a harsh and monochromatic era. Tobias Richter, an archaeologist, emphasizes the creativity and expertise of Stone Age humans in utilizing plants for various purposes.