top of page

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'.

However, the earliest known use for ochre was as a natural pigment, created by mixing ground rock with either with blood, fat, saliva or water. The pigment was used extensively throughout Aboriginal Australia on rock art. The hand stencil art form, one of the earliest forms of rock art in Australia, was created by mixing the ochre and water in the mouth and spraying it onto a hand. The outline left behind of the hand often symbolised ownership of country.

Ancient aboriginal stencil art of hands in Blackdown Tableland National Park, Queensland, Australia.
Ancient aboriginal stencil art of hands in Blackdown Tableland National Park, Queensland, Australia.

Ochre in Contemporary Aboriginal art

Today, although acrylic paints are now far more commonly used in Aboriginal art, there are still a handful of communities that use ochre. Artists in Arnhem Land, The Tiwi Islands, and Caldwell in far north Queensland produce work with traditional pigments, but the most notable community is Warmum – formally known as Turkey creek.

The artist Rover Thomas is credited with setting up the Warmun School of painting in the 1970s, and the artists work is inspired by the traditions of rock paintings and ceremonial body designs. Rover's work gained international success and he was one of three artists to represent Australia in the 1990 Venice Biennale.

After witnessing Rover's success, then other male Warmun artists, a new generation of female artists emerged at the community in the 1980s. In the vanguard were Queenie McKenzie and Madigan Thomas.

​'Fall Creek' by Madigan Thomas, 104 cm x 100 cm, Natural pigments on linen canvas
​'Fall Creek' by Madigan Thomas, 104 cm x 100 cm, Natural pigments on linen canvas

Aboriginal Art UK is very fortunate to hold one on Madigan's works in our collection. She was born on Violet Valley Station, just south of Warmun, but moved to Mabel Downs Station after Violet Valley became an outstation. At Mabel Downs she assisted her husband Sandy, a stockman, riding with the men and mustering the cattle.

A strong Kitja Law woman, Madigan believed in Traditional woman's law, and this had a strong influence in her work. Her artistic style is varied, from delicately dotted landscapes to vivid black lines of the open-cut diamond mine on the Women's Sacred Site. She exhibited widely but came to national attention as a finalist in the 1994 National Aboriginal Art Award.

​Her daughter, Shirley Purdie, is also an artist of repute. Shirley was taught to paint by her mother and Queenie Mckenzie and has gone on to win a number of awards, including the Blake Prize for Religious Art in 2007. Madigan passed away in 2011 but is still considered by many experts to be one of the most influential contemporary Aboriginal artists.

Untitled by Timothy Cook, 91 x 67cm, Natural pigment on Canvas
Untitled by Timothy Cook, 91 x 67cm, Natural pigment on Canvas

Timothy Cook is another contemporary artist who paints with ochre and whose work we are delighted to have in the collection. He was born in 1958 and lives and works at Milikapiti on Melville Island as a member of Jilamara Arts & Crafts Association.

When Timothy began exhibiting his work in the late 1990s, his work was inspired by the 'Mountford barks', a collection of traditional barks and baskets put together by the anthropologist Charles Mountford. His bold paintings are modern interpretations of parlini jilamara - old-time designs. These designs are strongly connected to Tiwi ceremonial practice, particularly the Kulama (yam ceremony and a coming of age ritual) and Pukumani (funeral ceremony), as well as stories of Purukapali, one of the significant mythological Tiwi ancestral figures.

In 2012 Timothy won the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Award and was a finalist numerous times in the 2000s. His work is held in major public and private collections in Australia and internationally.

There is something very special about these works produced with natural pigments, and perhaps it's because the artists paint the landscape using the landscape itself. However, it's also something less tangible. This earth substance, ochre, has been with us alongside the other fundamental elements from the very beginning. This carries with it a primal reverence, even subconsciously, that we naturally have for the building block of life and our lives.

Thanks for taking the time to take a look at our long read, we hope you enjoyed it! If you are interested in a more in-depth look at subjects surrounding Aboriginal culture, why not check out Traditional medicine, Aboriginal Health and Big Pharma.

For further information and enquiries please contact Nadia Phillips


What the Ancient Pigment Ochre Tells Us About the Human Mind. Discover Magazine, March, 2018.

MCA Australia. Artist profile: Timothy Cook.

Use of red ochre by early Neandertals. National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Australia: The Land Where Time Began. M.H.Monroe

Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. National Heritage Places - Wilgie Mia Aboriginal Ochre Mine:

Ochre Paintings. Kate Owen Gallery.

Oldest Homo sapiens bones ever found shake foundations of the human story. The Guardian, June, 2017.

Bình luận

bottom of page