An early case of color symbolism: Ochre use by modern humans in Qafzeh Cave

Erella Hovers*, Shimon Ilani, Ofer Bar-Yosef, Bernard Vandermeersch

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

233 Scopus citations


Prehistoric archaeology provides the temporal depth necessary for understanding the evolution of the unique human ability to construct and use complex symbol systems. The long-standing focus on language, a symbol system that does not leave direct evidence in the material record, has led to interpretations based on material proxies of this abstract behavior. The ambiguities resulting from this situation may be reduced by focusing on systems that use material objects as the carriers of their symbolic contents, such as color symbolism. Given the universality of some aspects of color symbolism in extant human societies, this article focuses on the 92,000-year-old ochre record from Qafzeh Cave terrace to examine whether the human capacity for symbolic behavior could have led to normative systems of symbolic culture as early as Middle Paleolithic times. Geochemical and petrographic analyses are used to test the hypothesis that ochre was selected and mined specifically for its color. Ochre is found to occur through time in association with other finds unrelated to mundane tasks. It is suggested that such associations fulfill the hierarchical relationships that are the essence of a symbolic referential framework and are consistent with the existence of symbolic culture. The implications of these findings for understanding the evolution of symbolic culture in the contexts of the African and Levantine prehistoric records are explored.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)491-522
Number of pages32
JournalCurrent Anthropology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2003


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