09 September, 2006

ochre pigments . . . red, yellow, brown, black and "sparkling purple"

Lawrence Barham, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool, said an analysis of coloured stains on rock tools found at the site indicated that early humans were grinding ochre pigments long before they were known to be used for cave paintings.

"My work in Zambia is beginning to show that, at least in this one small part of central Africa, the use of mineral pigments or ochres as colours goes back at least 300,000 years," Dr Lawrence said yesterday.

"There is a long period between the appearance of rock art about 32,000 years ago - which is strong evidence of colour symbolism - and this more indirect, ambiguous evidence in the archaeological record of Africa," Dr Barham told the British Association's annual meeting at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

Archaeologists digging at the Twin Rivers site found ochre pigments of various colours, including red, yellow, brown, black and "sparkling purple", at levels in the ground that correspond to 300,000 years ago - long before the rise of modern man, Homo sapiens.

Dr Barham said the evidence pointed to the use of coloured pigments as part of symbolic rituals by the primitive Stone Age people who lived there. They possibly belonged to Homo heidelbergensis, a species with a relatively large brain.

"If you were to argue that these iron oxides are purely functional, and are of no historic value, how do you explain away the range of colours that are being selected from different places in the landscape?" Dr Barham said.

"If it was just the iron element, any of them would do, whether it was the red or the yellow. Some colours are closer to the site than others so people are deliberately selecting the pigments for the colours . . . " [snip]

It is possible that an interest in the use of coloured pigments for symbolic purposes developed at the same time that early humans made the radical shift from hand-held stone axes to finer stone tools tied to wooden or bone handles. "It may seem a simple development but it is the foundation for all the technologies we use today. It's called composite technologies," Dr Lawrence said.

"I think by that time we have not just language, but the development of quite a complex language, which allows the planning that you see in the artefacts but also the planning to take something out of the environment and to change its meaning by putting it on your body."

It may, however, be difficult to prove unless the art itself was preserved. "We'd love to find a bog body of that age which is covered in tattoos, but that is not going to happen," Dr Lawrence said. Steve Connor

Primitive Means Complex

That there are no primitive languages is an axiom of contemporary linguistics where it turns its attention to the remote languages of the world. There are no half-formed languages, no underdeveloped or inferior languages. Everywhere a development has taken place into structures of great complexity. People who have failed to achieve the wheel wil not have failed to invent & develop a highly wrought grammar. Hunters & gatherers innocent of all agriculture will have vocabularies that distinguish the things of their world down to the finest details. The language of snow among the Eskimos is awesome. The aspect of Hopi verbs can, by a flick of the tongue, make the most subtle kinds of distinctions between different types of motion.

What is true of language in general is equally true of poetry & of the ritual-systems of which so much poetry is a part. It is a question of energy & intelligence as universal constants &, in any specific case, the direction that energy & intelligence (=imagination) have been given. No people today is newly born. No people has sat in sloth for the thousands of years of its history. Measure everything by the Titan rocket & the transistor radio, & the world is full of primitive peoples. But once change the unit of value to the poem or the dance-event or the dream (all clearly artifactual situations) & it becomes apparent what all these people have been doing all those years with all that time on their hands.

from the "Pre-Face" to Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania, by Jerome Rothenberg)

"The mind, nanola, by which term intelligence, power of discrimination, capacity for learning magical formulae, & all forms of non-manual skill are described, as well as moral qualities, resides somewhere in the larynx. . . . The force of magic does not reside in the things; it resides within man & can escape only through his voice."
(Trobriands, New Guinea), Technicans, , p. 359


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