Found at Blombos Cave in Cape Town, the shells were found alongside various other tools, suggesting that the users were mixing flakes of ochre, an iron ore used to create red and yellow shades, with other compounds to create a liquid paste.
According to the study, “a bone was probably used to stir the mixture and to transfer some of the mixture out of the shell.”
The paint could have been ceremonial, decorative or protective, used perhaps on the body.
“Ochre may have been applied with symbolic intent as decoration on bodies and clothing during the Middle Stone Age,” explained Christopher Henshilwood, head of the study at the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand.
“This discovery represents an important benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition in that it shows that humans had the conceptual ability to source, combine and store substances that were then possibly used to enhance their social practices.”