Long Read: Ochre, A Window To Our Past

Ochre has been a part of our human story since the very start. Societies have used this distinctive material since prehistory through ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, the Maori people of New Zealand, Paleoindians in the Americas, tribes throughout Africa and, of course, Aboriginal Australians.

Researchers discovered the earliest use of 'human worked' ochre at archaeological sites at Olorgesailie, Kenya, dated to around 307,000 years ago - close to the of the emergence of Homo sapiens. These finds support an emerging view amongst archaeologists and neuroscientists that 'modern' human cognition may have developed much earlier than thought.

A window into our development

Initially, researchers believed that iron-rich rocks at prehistoric sites only had symbolic value, however as archaeologists discovered evidence of more and more practical uses for the material, the idea that the human relationship with ochre is more complex developed.

"People may say ochre is the earliest form of art and symbolism, but there's more to it… ochre shows how our brains were developing, and that we were using our environment. It bridges the divide between art and science."

Tammy Hodgskiss, archaeologist at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa

Ochre is now considered to be one of the most important proxies used by researchers to chart the evolution of human cognition. Hodgskiss adds:

"We look at the action sequences to see what cognitive abilities were needed: Did it have to be heated? Did it need to be buried in the hearth?"

Each new use provides clues about the cognitive and cultural development of our ancient ancestors. Our human cousins, the Neanderthals, also used ochre and finds at sites in Europe and western Asia show date to at least 250,000 years old.

The material's attractiveness to the humans family is likely rooted in an adaptation that occurred about 23 million years ago in our early primate ancestors. The development of trichromatic vision evolved the ability to see red, particularly against a green background and this is when Ochre may well have first come to our attention.

The famous Ochre cliffs near Rousillon, Provence, France.

Bright earth

Ochre is the collective name for a range of iron-rich rocks composed of iron oxide, one of the most common minerals found on earth. Deposits are found on every continent, and the colour varies depending on its constituent properties and environment. Ochres range from a bright orange in Roussillon, brown in Cyprus, Salmon pink in Tuscany, yellow in Egypt, but the best known is red ochre which is found worldwide, but in abundance in outback Australia.

Red ochre was an essential part of traditional Aboriginal culture and was highly valued for its colouring. The most significant ochre deposit in Australia is Wilgie Mia, also called Thuwarri Thaa ('red ochre hole'). It is located in a hillside in the Weld Range and is the largest and deepest historic Aboriginal ochre mine. Research at the site indicates it has been in use for up to 40,000 years. This discovery has led to suggestions that Wilgie Mia may be the world's oldest continuing mining operation.

Wilgie Mia and surrounding area are of historical, cultural significance and continue to be sacred to the Wajarri Yamatji people and neighbouring tribes. The site is considered to be the final resting place of ancestral beings, such as the kangaroo, dingo or emu ancestors and the red ochre symbolised the ancestor's blood metamorphosed into rock.

For Aboriginal people, travelling to sacred ochre mines is akin to a pilgrimage to the resting place of their ancient ancestors. There is evidence that suggests that Noongar people travelled from as far as Esperance to Wilgie Mia to obtain its ochre – over 1000km!

There was a trade for this precious resource between groups within tribes, and the tribes themselves. Trade routes, known as songlines, stretch across Australia between sacred sites and ochre was traded during large social and ceremonial gatherings at these places.

Ochre Pits in the MacDonnell ranges, Australia
Ochre Pits in the MacDonnell ranges, Australia

Ochre uses

Indigenous communities around the world have made diverse use of ochre rocks, some are common amongst these disparate groups, but other uses are more specific to the needs of the local environment and the development of knowledge of a population.

Indigenous groups widely used ochre for tanning hide; it has anti-bacterial qualities, which prevent the breakdown of collagen, preserving the material. In Australia, this was how the kangaroo hides worn as capes by the Aboriginal tribes were treated. Ochre powder is an effective aggregate in resin adhesives and was used to mount handles or shafts onto tools or weapons, with the additional benefit that it also helped to condition and preserve the wood.

Many cultures used ochre for body decoration, sun protection and mortuary practices. At Lake Mungo, in New South Wales, burial sites have been excavated and burial materials, including ochre-painted bones, have been dated to the arrival of people. 'Mungo Man', the oldest indigenous Australian remains found to date, was buried sprinkled with red ochre estimated to be between 30,000 - 60,000 years old.

In hot climates, ochre-based pastes have been used as protection from the sun, and it has proven to protect the skin from the effects of ultra-violet radiation. In fact, it is still used as a sunscreen today by the Ovahimba people in Namibia. In colder climates, or during winter, the paste also protected from the cold, preventing the loss of body heat.

The Noongar people of southwestern Australia lived in an environment where fresh water was scarce during the summer months and this created cleanliness issues. A practical substitute for water was a topical unguent known as wilgi made from a mixture of ochre and animal fat, and this also acted as a barrier from bites from insects like mosquitos.

Red ochre also had medical uses in Aboriginal culture. It was sprinkled on wounds and ulcers to help with drying and healing. The powder was also blended with goanna or emu fat and applied to treat muscle sprains, aches and pains associated with arthritis. Amongst many of the older generations of Aboriginies, it is still considered by many to be a 'cure-all'.