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Prehistoric rock art using ochre paint on a cave wall in Drakensberg, South Africa

Prehistoric Man in South Africa Made Milk-based Paint 49000 years ago

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A paint mixture of ochre and wild bovid milk, possibly from a buffalo or eland or similar animal, was found on a chip of a stone tool dating back 49,000 years in Sibudu Cave, a rock shelter in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The stone tool fragment was found in a rock shelter in South Africa that humans inhabited between 77,000 and 38,000 years ago.

"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," Paola Villa of the University of Colorado told PLOS One. "Obtaining milk from a lactating wild bovid also suggests that the people may have attributed a special significance and value to that product."

Villa and researchers from her institution and the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa published the study, which said use of ochre by early humans dates back about 250,000 years in Africa and Europe. Ochre has been used widely by Aboriginal Australians throughout their 65000+ year time on the huge island, and a 30000-year-old ochre mine is the oldest continuously working mine in the world.

But this is the first evidence that paint with milk and ochre has been found to have been used by early people in South Africa.

The paint mixture may have been used as body paint, a practice that has been common worldwide throughout history. The Himba are indigenous peoples living in northern Namibia, who use a body paint made from red ochre and milk fat. The paste is lathered over the entire body and is used to keep the skin hydrated over long periods of water scarcity, and to protect themselves from the extremely hot and dry climate.

A Himba girl covered in body paint made with red ochre and milk fat

A Himba girl covered in body paint made with red ochre and milk fat (Wikimedia Commons)

“The milk likely was obtained by killing lactating members of the bovid family such as buffalo, eland, kudu and impala ... ” PLOS One said. “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, that was occupied by anatomically modern humans in the Middle Stone Age … said Villa. 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.”

Cattle were domesticated in South Africa about 1,000 to 2,000 years ago. It may have been possible for Middle Stone Age hunters to obtain the milk of the wild animals because South African bovids leave the herd when giving birth in an attempt to hide their newborns.

Villa said the dried paint residue on the stone flake may have been there because it was used as an applicator or to mix the ochre and milk. The researchers employed highly advanced technology to determine that casein, the major milk protein, was on the flake.

An international research team led by the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, has discovered a milk-and ochre-based paint on a small stone flake dating to 49,000 years

An international research team led by the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, has discovered a milk-and ochre-based paint on a small stone flake dating to 49,000 years (University of Colorado)

Ochre was used as a paint by people in South Africa as long ago as 125,000 years. But the practice of grinding up ochre and using it as paint dates back at least 250,000 years in other archaeological sites in Africa and Europe, the researchers said. The natural pigment ranges in color from brown to red to orange to yellow.

Researchers have seen use of ochre in combination with plant gum or resin to connect shafts to tools, Villa said. “It also may have been used to preserve hides and for body paint, she said, noting that a roughly 100,000-year-old ochre-rich compound blended with animal marrow fat was found at the Middle Stone Age site of Blombos Cave in South Africa,” PLOS One reported. “Body painting is widely practiced by the indigenous San people in South Africa, and is depicted in ancient rock art. While there are no ethnographic precedents for mixing ochre with milk as a body paint, the modern Himba people in Namibia mix ochre with butter as a coloring agent for skin, hair and leather clothing.”

Body painting has been known worldwide from the earliest times on all continents except Antarctica. People in Australia, New Zealand, South America, Europe, North America, some Pacific Islands and Africa still paint their bodies. Also, body paint is used in American Indian ceremonies. It was known in Europe in the Late Stone Age when naked, blue-painted Picts rushed into battle. Some Western people do body painting even when it is not a part of their heritage.

Top image: Prehistoric rock art using ochre paint on a cave wall in Drakensberg, South Africa (Photo by Alessandro Passaré/Wikimedia Commons)

By Mark Miller



You've both got a point. I think that the common tendency of archaeologists to assume that they know all the basics of human history is egotistical at best. 'Humans all over the globe domesticated animals and started agriculture at THIS point in time, no sooner!' How do you know that for sure? Hint; you don't. They've based that on evidence they've found and recognized as such, but more evidence could still be out there, or it's in a form we don't recognize. They only dig so deep because they assume there's nothing more to find. And they often ignore the words of the ancestors of the people that they're studying as being nothing more but 'silly superstition and imaginative myths'. At that point, you've lost the whole point of what you set out to do in the first place, which is to learn about our past. You can't have one without the other. Something that drives me crazy is this assumption that before the start of 'recorded human history', humans were all primitive and 'stupid'. That modern humans somehow just dicked around for 300,000 some-odd years. It's silly. Look how far we've come in just 10,000 years. I feel that human history is far older and more interesting than we've been led to belive. Places like Africa, Central and South America were especially advanced, and there's evidence of it. If these caves show 'paint' that has been mixed with milk... I'd say that's a pretty good indication of domestication. How else would these ancestors have gotten their hands on milk? It's actually the most logical explanation. Which, from what VDSK is saying (thank you), sounds like it's what the indigenous people have been saying all along. Why are archaeologists so adverse to listening to oral history?!

Actually … Tom Carberry … Considering that you are probably not au fait with how Africa worked prior to European Colonization, it is not only unwise to make speculative statements suggesting knowledge of African means and ways.

The paste is called Ibumba, and was in use since time immemorial, and can also be used as a skin lightener in addition to being a hydration medium.

Addittioinally, cattle were domesticated in Africa since time immemorial, a simple case in point being my geneology that goes back 18 generations, with the 1st in line actually being famous for having an extraordinarily large herd of cattle. Add to that the fact that our tribe, thought of as Nguni (of which the Masai, Swazi, Zulu & Xhosa (as well as sub-nations that broke off from those base clans) people of today are a part of) today, originated in Southern Kenya / Northern Tanzania and were forced by drought to migrate South to what is now known as the South Coast of KZN.

My opinion is ... It is unwise to speak of something one knows very little of because it not only exposes the arrogance of the West regarding Africa, but also the lack of real knowledge of the facts … My suggestion is …. GO spend a long time with the Natives, earn their trust, and perhaps they will share some of their extremely rich oral tradition, which is still passed from generation to generation till this day, about who is what, and did what in Africa before Europeans showed up and decided what borders fall wherever they saw fit per their various colonial agenda.


This story has one fact – they found a chip of stone with a milk based pigment.  Every thing else comes from theory and speculation.

First, as with all dating of ancient items, people should always question the dating.  We don’t have any methods of accurately dating materials beyond a few thousand years, and even those dates have lots of room for error because of intrustion factors.  You can see this especially in the study of human bones, where dating fits theory and we have zero ways of testing the guesstimated dates.  But careers depend on dates, the older the better.  Most articles, like this one, don’t bother explaining how they arrived at a particular date, but assume everyone should accept it, like good parishoners.  

Theory says humans didn’t domesticate cattle in south Africa until a few thousand years ago, so old milk paint had to come using a wild bovid or other animal.  Ever tried to milk a wild water buffalo or an eland?  Or an elk or an American buffalo?  Tourists die every year doing stupid tourist stunts around such large wild animals.  

And did they take a bowl with them on the hunt and pick out a lactating female to kill?  

Why can’t anthropologists and archaeologists admit we will never really know the precise details of ancient human history, or maybe not even the broad outlines.  Legends and myths say civilizations rise and fall.  The Yuga cycles posit 24,000 year rises and falls, which would mean about 2 of them between now and 49,000 years ago.




Tom Carberry

A more likely possibility is that the milk was given as an act of free will. Before domestication Humans were able to strike significant and mutual relationship with many kind of beings.

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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