Ochre pigment (via Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers excavating a 40,000-year-old archaeological site in northeastern China have uncovered an ochre processing workshop that is the earliest such example in East Asia. Other artifacts found at the Xiamabei site, such as a hammer stone, limestone slab, animal bone, and ochre fragments, suggest that powders of different hues and grain sizes were produced there. Ochre, a natural clay earth pigment, was used to make oil paint for rock art and as a key ingredient in adhesives and insect repellent, among other applications. 

The process of making and refining ochre involved knowledge and skill and required the use of particular tools. The archaeologists working at the site believe that the workshop was operated by Homo sapiens, but also leave open the possibility that Denisovans or Neanderthals might have inhabited it. Most notably, what they observed at Xiamabei did not completely match characteristics of comparable sites inhabited around the same period.

“The record of northern Asia supports a process of technological innovations and cultural diversification emerging in a period of hominin hybridization and admixture,” they wrote in the abstract of their research paper, which was published in the journal Nature.

Michael Petraglia, a professor at Griffith University and a co-author of the study, told the Guardian that “there could have been a lot of interbreeding, and therefore we’re dealing with populations that are different both biologically and culturally at 40,000 years ago.”

Scientists have evidence that Homo sapiens were present in that region around that time: research in 2015 indicated that Homo sapiens had migrated out of Africa to East Asia as early as 100,000 years ago, and a 40,000 year old Homo sapiens fossil was unearthed just about 60 miles away from Xiamabei. Older ochre processing workshops have been discovered, such as one in South Africa excavated in 2008 that was operated 100,000 years ago. But if indeed used by Homo sapiens, the ochre at Xiamabei provides unique insight into the activities and penchant for symbolic representation of the particular people who inhabited the site. 

“Ochre provides insight into people’s knowledge of the world around them,” Rachel Popelka-Filcoff, an archaeological scientist at the University of Melbourne, told the journal Science. “You have to have the ability to procure it, to change its properties, to utilize it, and when talking about symbolic practices, you have to have communities around you to understand that symbolism.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.