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Record of wild milk use in SA

- By Wits University

An international team of researchers from South Africa, USA, UK and Italy has discovered evidence of an unusual paint mixture used approximately 49 000 years ago in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The paint mixture consisted of red powdered ochre and casein (dried milk protein) obtained from a wild bovid animal.

The findings are in a paper titled: A milk and ochre paint mixture used 49,000 years ago at Sibudu, South Africa and appear in the latest edition of the journal, PLos One. The team consists of Wits University’s Professor Lyn Wadley and international researchers Paola Villa, Luca Pollarolo, Ilaria Degano, Leila Birolo, Marco Pasero, Cristian Biagioni, Katerina Douka, Roberto Vinciguerra and Jeannette J. Lucejko. 

The paint is a well-preserved micro-residue on the edge of a small stone flake excavated from Sibudu cave by Professor Wadley from the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI), Wits University. 

Using chemical and elemental analyses the researchers were able to establish that powdered ochre was mixed with milk in its liquid form. However, the milk used was not from a domestic cow but from the wild bovid family such as buffalo, eland, kudu and impala. 

This find is surprising for a number of reasons. 

The use of bovid milk predates the introduction of domestic cattle in South Africa. So how was the milk obtained from a wild bovid? The authors suggest that the milk was likely obtained by killing a lactating wild bovid female. Many South African wild bovids separate from the herd when giving birth and hide away with their young, thus becoming easy prey for experienced hunters, writes the team.

New contribution by the study

Previous studies show that early humans blended ochre with other substances to make paint, body paint, sunscreen and glue for fixing stone tools on wooden or bone handles. There are, however, no ethnographic precedents for mixing ochre with milk.

Although the paint use from Sibudu remains uncertain, the find establishes the use of milk well before the introduction of domestic cattle in South Africa. Obtaining milk from a lactating wild bovid also suggests that the Sibudu people may have attributed a special significance and value to that product.

Interestingly, in ancient times, a mixture of pigment with milk as a binder was an art medium known as tempera. Its oldest documented use is 1200 BCE in Greece. Tempera was then widely used in the Classical period throughout the Middle Ages and up to the Renaissance. The oldest representational art in southern Africa is on seven stone slabs dated to 27 500 years ago from a rock shelter called Apollo 11 in Namibia. However, neither milk nor casein has been documented as media for pigment in southern African rock art and too many millennia separate the Sibudu find from any evidence of tempera technique as an art medium.

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