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Further info on "Red Ochre Use by Early" Neandertals

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A PNAS paper by members of our group and colleagues from other institutes on red ochre finds from Maastricht-Belvédère (The Netherlands) has just gone on-line in PNAS Early Edition. It is an Open Access article (courtesy of NWO, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research). Below is some additional information on the study, assembled in Q&A form.

What was the ochre used for, in your opinion? In the paper you do not come up with an interpretation. Why is that?

From the archaeological site itself we could not derive any evidence regarding the specific use of the ochre. That is often the case at prehistoric sites. We know from the ethnographic record that iron oxides/red ochres can be used for a wide range of purposes, including food preservation, preparation of hides, decoration of bodies and artifacts, as insect repellent, as an ingredient in hafting cements/glues, and even as medicine (refs 3-10 in our paper). Some archaeologists interpret the presence of red ochre at a site as an indication of “symbolic” behaviour, or “abstract” forms of reasoning. Red ochre is indeed also well-known from Ice Age cave paintings and from burials of Palaeolithic modern humans. However, given the wide range of more “mundane” purposes and the lack of clear clues to its use at Maastricht-Belvédère, we have refrained from speculating on the specific application of the red ochre in this case. The earliest unambiguous case of ochre use in a “ritual” context comes from a burial at Lake Mungo, New South Wales, Australia. There the body of a man was sprinkled with red ochre, 42,000 years ago.

Where did the hematite come from? In the paper you suggest that these early Neandertals may have picked it up in the Maas river bed, but that import from larger distances is also possible. 

Given the very small size of the samples excavated at Maastricht-Belvédère, we could not go much further than seeing that the red concentrates contained very fine hematite material. We do not want to exclude the possibility that Neandertals picked up (extremely rare) tiny hematite fragments from the river beds, carried down by the river Maas from iron ore sources in the Belgian Ardennes, at a few dozens of kilometers south of the site. But we do not think that it is probable that the material was collected from the river bed near Maastricht, it is too rare a material there. Primary sources are at a few dozen kilometers south of Maastricht, in the Belgian Ardennes. And then there is this fascinating “German connection” (Fig 5 in the paper): in the 1980s, German colleagues, excavating a series of archaeological sites dating to the penultimate glacial period, retrieved stone tools made out of flint from the Maastricht-Aachen area, more than 100 kilometers to the northwest of the German sites. That indicates that there were contacts between the Eifel area with its iron ore sources and the Maastricht-Aachen flint area, more than 160,000 years ago. If Neandertals transported flint tools from the Maastricht area to the Eifel, it is possible that they carried hematite (powder) from the Eifel to the northwest. Such transfer distances fit very well with our data on Neandertal movements through the Pleistocene landscapes of Europe. We wish to repeat however, that for the specific case of the Maastricht-Belvédère these are mere possibilities, we need larger samples to choose between these alternatives.

 How can you exclude that the hematite finds were a part of the geological background?

The main issue indeed was to establish that this mineral has been imported to the site by Neandertals and not naturally with the fluvial sediments on which they settled. One main argument for the artefactual nature of these objects is deduced from their spatial occurrence, primarily in the sites C and F. In other parts of the >1200 m2 excavated at Maastricht-Belvédère, as well as in the many profiles and sampling that have been conducted in archaeological and non-archaeological contexts in this location, there is no record of such hematite finds, although excavators were explicitly instructed to pay attention to possible occurrences of this mineral. The structure of the hematite concentrates is also an important argument: it was shown that the hematite material entered the sediments after the formation of the fluvial sediments on which early Neandertals built a temporary camp site.  

What is the age of the Maastricht-Belvédère sites?

The Maastricht-Belvédère quarry yielded various archaeological find levels, studied in the 1980s. The finds at stake here come from a warm-temperate period, an interglacial, which is minimally 200-250,000 years old. In the 1980s and 1990s scientists from various disciplines attempted to date this interglacial and its associated archaeology, most methods converging on a calendrical age of around 250,000 years ago. However, two of the applied dating methods suggest that the site may date to an earlier interglacial, of around 300-350,000 years ago. We are still working on this dating issue. In this paper we have taken the conservative estimate of 250,000 years as our point of departure.

What does this data tell us about Neandertals that we did not know yet?

We did know already that later Neandertals, the ones from the last glacial period, were regular user of manganese and iron oxides (again, for unknown purposes). The Maastricht-Belvédère evidence shows that these practices have a much higher antiquity. It adds another trait to the list of early Neandertal material culture, which gives somewhat more relief to these ancient populations of hunter-gatherers. It also shows that the early ochre use documented at various sites in South Africa was not a characteristic of the early modern humans there, since Neandertals were also (at least: sporadically) using red ochre, around 250,000 years ago.

You mention that thus far the Maastricht-Belvédère ochre case is a unique occurrence. How do you explain that?

We do mention in the paper that there are a few claims for ochre use from other, more or less contemporaneous sites in Europe. However, these are not uncontested, because of the dating of the sites or because of problems with the identification of the inferred red ochres as humanly modified. It is very well possible that some of these sites may turn out to contain humanly modified iron oxides too, and we hope that this paper will stimulate new analyses of these finds. At Maastricht-Belvédère we were lucky that 1) we had the possibility to excavate very carefully and 2) we were excavating in fine-grained sediments with a very light colour, enabling us to spot very small and friable finds of a different colour. Had the sediments been subjected to intensive weathering and soil formation, we would not have been able to see this material in the field. After all, we think they are just blobs of an ochre-rich liquid substance, spilled on the former soil surface. In short, it was a lucky combination of the right geological setting with a good research context that allowed us to retrieve these traces. We predict that more of these traces will be found, provided the right mix of possibilities occur.

You performed an experiment to test your hypothesis that the red material entered the sediments as blobs of an ochre-rich liquid substance, spilled on the former soil surface. You used a sandstone from the Maas gravels to grind hematite into powder. Are there any grinding stones known from this period?

These are indeed extremely rare. A very fascinating find was made during the 1970s excavations at the late Middle Pleistocene open air site of Rheindahlen (Germany). This site has an estimated age of around 200,000 years. The excavators retrieved three sandstone slabs with traces of use (ref. 32 of our paper). Though the exact character of its usage is unclear, experiments by H. Thieme showed that the best match to these traces was obtained by using sandstone to grind hematite into powder. However, no traces of hematite were found on this Rheindahlen site, which is situated at c. 60 kilometers NE of Maastricht.