DR. IAN D.S. WATTS, an independent scholar in Athens, Greece, was awarded funding in April 2012 to aid research on 'The Antiquity and Behavioral Implications of Pigment Use in the Northern Cape (South Africa).' Earth pigment use is widely considered to date back approximately 300,000 years (~300 ka), but several poorly documented claims have been made for earlier use, from Fauresmith and Acheulean contexts in South Africa's Northern Cape. This project evaluated these claims. At Kathu Pan, scraped specularite-a glittery form of haematite-is associated with some of the earliest blades and points, at ~500 ka. This is currently the earliest compelling evidence for pigment use. Utilized specularite and red pigments were recovered from an undated Fauresmith context at the back of Wonderwerk Cave, where firelight would have been essential. Specularite was also confirmed at Canteen Kopje, associated with early Middle Stone Age or Fauresmith material, with dating estimates for overlying deposits indicating a minimum age of ~300 ka. Claims for Acheulean pigments at Kathu Pan, Kathu Townlands, and Wonderwerk could not be confirmed; indeed, there is good evidence of absence. Minimum distances to specularite outcrops for Wonderwerk and Canteen Kopje are 50km and 170km respectively, with no natural agencies capable of reducing these distances. These findings lend some support to predictions of Power's 'female cosmetic coalitions' model of the evolution of symbolic culture, while challenging predictions of Kuhn's 'honest, low-cost signals' hypothesis.
Watts, Ian, Michael Chazan, and Jayne Wilkins. 2016. Early Evidence for Brilliant Ritualized Display: Specularite Use in the Northern cape (South Africa) between ~500 and ~300 Ka. Current Anthropology 57(3):287-310