Archaeologists discover the oldest use of a plant dye in an Israeli cave

From some beads found in the Kebara Cave, an Israeli archaeological site, archaeologists have discovered the earliest known use to date of a dye of entirely plant origin: a bright red that can be dated to about 15,000 years ago.

Analyzing some beads, made from particular shells, found in the cave of Kebara, an Israeli archaeological site located on the western side of Mount Carmel, a team of archaeologists consisting of Laurent Davin of Hebrew University, Ludovic Bellot-Gurlet of CNRS and Julien Navas of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris, has made an important discovery that highlights the first known use to date of a dye of entirely plant origin, made from the roots of some plants in the Rubiaceae family: a bright red that can be dated to about 15,000 years ago.

The discovery attributes its reliable use in early Natufian settlements inhabited by the first sedentary hunter-gatherers of the Levant. The artifacts analyzed and found in Kebara Cave belong to a collection housed in Israel at the Rockefeller Museum and dating back to excavations in 1931. As the researchers explained, other objects unearthed in that excavation, which could be useful for further investigations related to their study, are preserved in collections in the United States and Great Britain.

In the article published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, they point out that as early as 140,000 years ago, humans in Africa had begun to habitually use red mineral pigments such as iron oxide (commonly called ochre) to decorate living space, objects, the body and clothing.

Current research in the field of prehistoric archaeology also recognizes red ochre as a material universally applied for different purposes, from symbolic and ritual display to utilitarian or functional uses, depending on the contexts. The study also highlights how many of these have been recognized in the natufian archaeological culture (15,000-11,650 BCE.), which marks, in the Levant, the transition from Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies to Neolithic agricultural economies: the Natufians were the first hunter-gatherers to adopt a sedentary lifestyle, dramatic economic and social change associated with increasing social complexity, also reflected in various aspects of their material culture involving red ochre (burials, artistic displays, personal ornaments, made from shells, objects and durable stone structures whose lime coating is red ochre).

The use of organic red pigments of plant or animal origin, which are brighter, “purer” and have stronger coloring power than inorganic pigments (and thus more attractive to the human eye) did not appear until much later, and the discoveries found so far date it to 6,000 years ago.

The recent discovery thus reveals not only a previously unknown behavioral aspect of Natufian societies (i.e., a well-established tradition of processing non-food plants at the beginning of the sedentary lifestyle), but also opens new perspectives on the ornamental practices and operational chains of pigment materials in a crucial period of human history. Ochre is found extensively in the Natufi context: for example, in the Hilazon Tachtit cave, also in Israel, which contains Natufi burials with ochre-colored textiles, however, this is the first discovery of such ancient plant dyes or in Natufi contexts.

The idea that Kebara’s Natufi beads had something unusual about them compared to all other Natufi beads (more than 10,000 have been found) stemmed from Davin’s careful analysis, which detected a surprisingly bright red. Interestingly, as the authors of the study note, plants of the Rubia family are not edible; the discovery, therefore, of a dye derived from their roots reveals a hitherto unknown behavioral aspect of Natufian society: the non-food processing of plants. Regarding this type of use, one can surmise other particular uses and ask a question: since they probably did not eat a non-edible plant, how did the Natufians discover this colorful property of its roots? Davin said it has been used and is still used today in traditional medicine in many cultures for its antioxidant properties, but also as a supposed aphrodisiac. As he speculates, the Natufians probably experimented with the use and applications of many things, observing their entire surroundings, looking for elements to use, testing them and ending up with a bright red dye that exceeded any hue in the mineral world. The study also shows that no other Natufian site has beads like these, an element that could attribute the use of the plant dye made from Rubiaceae to a local invention.

Another interesting aspect of the study is also related to the particular significance of the color red. As the authors of the study write: “There is a red effect, most evident in what concerns males, such that wearing enhances the sense of domination, aggression and testosterone level, facilitating positive outcomes in a competitive dynamic. This influence of the color red on the minds of anatomically modern humans probably explains, at least in part, why they began, some 140,000 years ago in Africa, to habitually use red mineral pigments.”

The particularly bright hue of the beads may suggest that, precisely, for the red effect had a particular psychological relevance that was also important in trying to impress other people or arouse an effect in them. Also, perhaps, in the context of courtship.

The discovery concerning the Kebara cave provides a fascinating premise for other interesting studies.

Pictured is the Kebara cave.

Archaeologists discover the oldest use of a plant dye in an Israeli cave
Archaeologists discover the oldest use of a plant dye in an Israeli cave

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