Around 29,000 years ago, during a warm spell between the repeated ravages of the Ice Age, a group of mourners brought a recently deceased young man to an isolated cave on a small rise, which would, one day, be the southern coastline of Wales. Within the cave, they dug a small pit for his body, placing a stone at either end as support for his head and feet. After lowering the man into the earth, possessions were laid upon and around him before the assembled group carried out the final act of the burial. They took copious amounts of red ochre, a natural earth pigment, and sprinkled it liberally over the body. It not only stained the man’s leather clothing deep red but also the body beneath. His remains, initially mistaken for a woman, became the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’, after the cave in which he was found.
Red Ochre Pigment
Ochre is also known from other burials during the Palaeolithic, such as Dolní Vĕstonice in the Czech Republic, where three bodies dating to around 26,000 years ago lay in a single grave: a woman between two men. Mourners sprinkled red ochre over the heads of the three, and across the groin of the woman, offering a tantalising possibility for her demise. Perhaps she had died from haemorrhaging during childbirth; the red of the ochre thereby mirroring the blood that drained from her body. Scenes such as this have led some researchers to suggest that ochre did indeed stand for blood, symbolising the life force that is within all living beings. Its use in burials created a continuum from life to death and possibly also reveals people’s understanding and expectation of an afterlife.
Many Upper Palaeolithic burials in Europe contain ochre pigment but its use also dates to far earlier times. People from Blombos Cave in South Africa, around 75,000 years ago, used ochre blocks as the canvas for some of the earliest art in existence. It is quite possible that the choice of medium was entirely intentional since there are hints that people also ground the pigment for painting. Over time, evidence for ochre use intensifies with its deep red colour increasingly used for ornamentation. People may have even used ochre for body decoration; a badge of belonging denoting to which group an individual originated. But was ochre merely a convenient medium for ornamentation or did it actually stand for something? Before its use in burials, it is difficult to be sure but clearly people were consciously choosing to use the colour red for their decorative designs.
Ornamentation developed further during the Upper Palaeolithic with people wearing small items on strings or sewn into their clothes. Again, it seems likely that these carried a message, not only to which group an individual belonged but also other symbolic associations. Teeth, for example, were popular during this time and were usually taken from predatory animals rather than prey species. When worn around the neck or sewn into clothing, the teeth may have denoted group affiliation, but the prevalence of predator species suggests they also brought other symbolic properties; the tooth becoming a metaphor for characteristics of the animal, such as defending the group or success in the hunt. But why did people select teeth to wear? After all, it was a long and bloody process to extract them from the jaw of an animal and longer still to prepare them for suspension. But teeth have a property that may have been especially important to people: they are shiny.
Brilliant White and Spiritual Power
Other materials Palaeolithic people used to make ornaments were also shiny, including ivory, mother of pearl, and soapstone. These all share a visual similarity that makes them almost appear to glow. Certain modern-day hunter-gatherers equate such inner brilliance with spiritual power and the Yolngu of northern Australia finely cross-hatch their artwork so that it shimmers and glows. The glistening nature of Yolngu art – its brilliance –instils it with spiritual power that appears to radiate out from the design. Moreover, such experience is not limited to Yolngu alone. Others who view the art also note its effects and have similar reactions to when they view shimmering water, the sun moving behind a patchwork of leaves, or even when examining the same type of objects worn by Palaeolithic people. People are captivated by the brilliance and, fleetingly, are held in its thrall, as if something reaches out and holds them fast. Whilst the encounter can be reduced to a natural neuropsychological response to a complex interplay of stimuli, the effect on people can be akin to a spiritual experience. Certainly, this is how the Yolngu people interpret brilliance – a spiritual power emanating from the object or art – and this may have been how Palaeolithic people also related to shiny objects. Their brilliance contained and radiated spiritual power. The tactile nature of the materials people worked may even suggest that people handled the objects, possibly in an attempt to absorb some of their power.
Most of the items Palaeolithic people made into ornaments are naturally shiny except one: ivory needed to be polished to uncover its brilliance. Whilst it may seem that this would have put people off using it, this is not the case. Ivory beads, animal models, and even replica hunting weapons proliferate during the Palaeolithic and it seems that people were entirely prepared to invest the time needed to make their ivory creations shine. Within two linked graves at Sunghir in eastern Russia, dating to around 24,000 years ago, two children had thousands of ivory beads sewn into their clothes. It has been estimated that each bead took 45 minutes to make, which means the 5,000 beads worn by the girl would have taken in excess of 3,750 hours working time. That is the equivalent of a person working 12 hours a day for over 10 months; an incredible investment of time. With the harshness of everyday life, it is hard to understand why anyone would invest so much time in creating ornamentation (or why others would support them whilst doing so), unless actually working with ivory was considered important in its own right.
At La Souquette, in France, shells were replicated in ivory before being made into jewellery. It seems ivory brought something to the finished ornament that shells were unable to provide on their own. Since ivory is the only material to require polishing to make it shine, it is possible that this was the crucial stage of production. Like the Yolngu, it is possible that Palaeolithic people were polishing ivory objects to bring out their brilliance, making themselves participants in uncovering the inner power of the item. Making an ivory bead may have even been akin to a spiritual act, uncovering power that would benefit not only the person wearing the object but also the group as a whole. It was therefore beneficial for the community to support these craftspeople for the considerable time they needed to perfect their creations. There is also one final element of the process that may be significant: the polishing agent used to bring out the brilliance of ivory was ochre, the same red earth pigment people sprinkled over the dead. Ochre released the brilliance, and potentially also the spiritual power, of ivory. From red came brilliant white.
The red ochre spread over burials may not have been to symbolise blood or life force but rather a means of bringing forth brilliance and spiritual power. It may have also referenced the decomposition process of a body whereby the flesh and blood rots to reveal white bone, which, in its raw state, is often shiny. This transformation may have also been apparent when collecting teeth to wear as ornaments. It has been noted that the extraction process was particularly bloody and the teeth would have needed cleaning after removal from the jaw. Any adhering blood would need to be wiped away before the shiny white enamel of the tooth became apparent. At Brassempouy, in France, people even collected and pierced human teeth for suspension. Ochre spread over the body may have been connected with such transformation, ensuring that an individual’s spiritual power was released upon death. It is striking that at Sunghir, where the children were effectively covered in ivory beads, and therefore already brilliant, ochre was not spread over the bodies but was added to the grave stuffed inside an older human leg bone. It seems that, whilst mourners considered the presence of ochre to be an important part of the burial assemblage, its usual role in covering the body was not necessary.
The presence of ochre in Palaeolithic graves, and its potential associations with spiritual power, suggests that the people within those graves may have been considered special in their own right. The man from Paviland had the skull of a mammoth sitting nearby, perhaps watching over his body, and a number of broken ivory rods and bracelets were placed on his chest. Perhaps the rods were used in the burial ritual, rather like magic wands or, perhaps, more prosaically, they were blanks for cutting beads. Those choosing the burial site may have even considered the cave a special place, perhaps an entrance to the lowerworld, and it is striking that people returned to the site and left objects, possibly as offerings, long after the burial would have been forgotten.
A man from Brno, dating slightly later at around 23,000 years ago, had an ivory marionette of a human figure in his grave, with the arms and legs joined to the body so that they could move independently. It is possible that the man used the marionette in magical performances and the addition of a possible drumstick in the grave adds another element to these performances. Similar marionettes are used in other cultures, far removed in time but perhaps not in focus. Inuit people, for example, carve figurines of humans for use in their shamanic rituals. As the Brno man was closely identified with these items (after all, they were confined to his grave) it is possible that he was a shaman or, at least, the Palaeolithic equivalent to a shaman. Brno man also suffered from the bone disease periostitis and this is mirrored by the woman from the grave at Dolní Vĕstonice, who was badly disabled, and also by other Palaeolithic graves. Why these disabled individuals were singled out for special burial is difficult to discern but shamans from more recent times are often disabled, or suffer debilitating illness, and it is possible that a similar attitude prevailed during the Palaeolithic. Equally, the children at Sunghir are special precisely because they are children; there is no other sign of hereditary hierarchy at this time so whatever singled the boy and girl out as special presumably happened in their lifetime. Perhaps they had the power of prophesy or were considered spiritually important in some other way. That may be why so much effort was undertaken to furnish them with such extravagant grave goods.
The Colour of Spiritual Power
This is a small but representative selection of Palaeolithic burials since others seem to share characteristics that make them special. It is plausible that all interred individuals were considered spiritually powerful whilst alive, possibly even the shamans of their communities. But while people may have accepted these individuals had power during life, after death, the situation was more ambiguous. Some lay secure with their ritual paraphernalia, and the two children at Sunghir dazzled in their layer of ivory beads, but for most it was a final layer of ochre that released such latent power. Perhaps this helped in crossing to the afterlife, or perhaps people thought that it actually kept the dead spirit close, in order to watch over the community. It is striking that many Palaeolithic burials were weighted down or were bound, possibly in an attempt to keep the spirit close.
It was not the colour red that made ochre significant during the Palaeolithic but its ability to bring out spiritual power through brilliance. Even kept sealed within the confines of a bone holder as at Sunghir, ochre was a vital component of burial. If these burials were shamans and their spirits had tasks to complete after death, it was a deep red covering of ochre that brought forth their power. Red may be a significant colour to us today, and we might readily associate it with blood and the spark that provides life, but to Palaeolithic people the colour may have been only a means to an end. Blood red brought forth brilliant white and released the latent power it contained.
This article was originally published in Origins Issue 2 (Fall 2012) and is reprinted here with permission. For the full illustrated article and complete references click here.