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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

A cave’s shell beads reveal oldest use of organic red colorant

Natufians living 15,000 years ago in present-day Israel were the first to decorate with an intense, organic shade of red found in Tutankhamun's tomb and van Gogh paintings.

(CN) — The Natufians, the first hunter-gatherers to adopt a sedentary lifestyle in the Near East about 15,000 years ago, decorated their personal ornaments like other peoples before them. But the early Natufians who lived near the Kebara Cave in Mount Carmel, now northern Israel, went to extra lengths, according to a PLOS ONE study published Wednesday.

They traveled to find the materials they wanted, and they are now the first known people to use organic sources to make bright red colorants.

After uncovering flutes made from bird bones at the Eynan-Mallaha archaeological site nearby, Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Laurent Davin, Sorbonne University's Ludovic Bellot-Gurlet and their team turned their attention to the Kebara Cave, with its 48 burial sites and an established history of settlement.

Many of the shell and bone ornaments found in Kebara were light orange or carbon black. The researchers say that without prepared coloring blocks of hematite and carbon black, they cannot know if the Early Natufian people intentionally mixed those substances, or if archeological sediments and surface contamination caused the dark color.

But they had clearer answers for 10 shell beads of a deep, brilliant red, all with a dense consistency and free of contamination.

The team's analysis of the 10 Kebara beads' red pigments showed that they did not contain iron oxide, or ocher, indicating that the red pigments are organic. The previous earliest documented use of organic plant- or animal-based red pigments, which produce brighter colors, was 6,000 years ago.

But this study estimates the red pigments found in Kebara are 15,000 years old.

Combining analyses of the red pigments' plant compound signatures and pollen analysis from the Early Natufian layers of the el-Wad Cave a few miles north of Kebara, the researchers found that Kebara Natufians likely used the inner part of the roots of plants from the Rubiaceae family — specifically the madder species — to achieve that shade of red.

Raman Spectroscopy analysis of a shell bead at Sorbonne University in Paris. (Laurent Davin/ Creative Commons via Courthouse News)

Until German chemists Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann invented synthetic alizarin in 1868, dyers and painters worldwide had been using madder for thousands of years. Madder-dyed textiles and pigments include Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Shroud of Turin and Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, according to the study's authors.

The researchers also say that the Natufians journeyed to find the beads’ material, as the Dentalium bisexangulum beads hail from the Red Sea, about 250 miles south of Kebara, and the Dentalium sexangulum beads originate from Miocene-Pliocene fossil deposits, about 250 miles to the north.

Davin said this indicates the Kebara Natufians' dedication to ornamental expression.

“The Natufians travelled to collect a lot of things such as flint, basalt, fossils, shells and maybe visit other Natufian villages,” Davin wrote in an email. “The long-distance connections that we see with the Red Sea in the south and fossil deposits in the north are probably the reflection of indirect acquisition such as exchanges with distant groups. The fact that these exchanges are more important at Kebara than at other Natufian sites shows the intensity of the long-distance social relations of the inhabitants of Kebara.”

How exactly Kebara Natufians turned Rubiaceae roots into red paint, and if they were the only ones to do so, remains unclear, though the researchers say that studying the cave’s tools and the Natufian ornaments scattered around various museums in the United Kingdom and North America may provide answers.

Still, Davin thinks that the Kebara Cave and Eynan-Mallaha findings already provide insight into the former hunter-gatherers as they began adopting a sedentary lifestyle.

“Findings from Kebara and Eynan-Mallaha and others to come show just how innovative the Natufians were compared with previous prehistoric cultures,” wrote Davin. “These innovations are undoubtedly linked to the major developments brought about by sedentarization, an extraordinary development, both for its relatively rapid process, and because it required fundamentally new forms of social, economic and cultural life in a period of significant and geographically variable environmental changes.”

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