Washington: New research has discovered a milk-and ochre-based paint dating to 49,000 years ago in what is now South Africa that people may have used to adorn themselves with or to decorate stone or wooden slabs.
While the use of ochre by early humans dates to at least 250,000 years ago in Europe and Africa, this is the first time a paint containing ochre and milk has ever been found in association with early humans in South Africa.
The milk likely was obtained by killing lactating members of the bovid family such as buffalo, eland, kudu and impala.
"Although the use of the paint still remains uncertain, this surprising find establishes the use of milk with ochre well before the introduction of domestic cattle in South Africa," said Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and lead study author.
"Obtaining milk from a lactating wild bovid also suggests that the people may have attributed a special significance and value to that product."
The powdered paint mixture was found on the edge of a small stone flake in a layer of Sibudu Cave, a rock shelter in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Africa.
The place was occupied by anatomically modern humans in the Middle Stone Age from roughly 77,000 years ago to about 38,000 years ago.
While ochre powder production and its use are documented in a number of Middle Stone Age South African sites, there has been no evidence of the use of milk as a chemical binding agent until this discovery.
The dried paint compound is preserved on the stone flake that may have been used as a mixing implement to combine ochre and milk, or as an applicator.
The team used several hi-tech chemical and elemental analyses to verify the presence of casein, the major protein of milk, on the flake.
The study appeared in the journal Plos One.