Southern African Humanities Vol. 18 (1) Pages 57–67 Pietermaritzburg November, 2006
Direct evidence for the use of ochre in the hafting technology of
Middle Stone Age tools from Sibudu Cave
Natal Museum, P. Bag 9070, Pietermaritzburg, 3200 & University of
KwaZulu-Natal, P. Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209 South Africa;
Microscopy was performed on tools obtained from the Middle Stone Age deposits of Sibudu Cave because
previous observations suggested that there might be a possible functional role for ochre at the site. Analyses
of the distribution patterns of ochre residues conducted on post-Howiesons Poort points and Howiesons
Poort segments from Sibudu Cave show that ochre was an integral part of the hafting technologies for the
duration of these techno-complexes. Close associations between ochre and resin on these tools strengthen
the hypothesis that ground ochre was probably mixed into the adhesives that were used to glue the tools to
hafts. The evidence presented here expands our understanding of the versatility and value of pigmentatious
material in prehistory; it is not intended to be an alternative or replacement hypothesis for its possible
KEY WORDS: Middle Stone Age, southern Africa, Sibudu Cave, hafting technology, ochre, resin
Ochre, in all its conditions, contexts and connotations, has become an intensely
discussed topic as part of the amplified quest for early evidence of modern human
behaviour (for example, Ambrose 1998; Barham 1998, 2002; Barton 2005; Conard
2005; d’Errico 2003; Hovers et al. 2003; Knight et al. 1995; Watts 1998, 2002;
Wreschner 1980, 1982). The large quantities of ochre retrieved from sites such as
Apollo 11, Boomplaas, Hollow Rock Shelter, Border Cave, Klasies River Cave 1,
Umhlatuzana, Rose Cottage Cave, Bushman Rock Shelter, Olieboomspoort (Watts
2002) and Blombos Cave (where engraved ochre fragments dated to 77 ka were
also found) ensured that the Middle Stone Age (MSA) of southern Africa became
a focal point in these discussions (Henshilwood et al. 2002). Subsequently,
meticulous excavations, analyses and replication projects, conducted to interpret
the archaeological records at sites with long MSA sequences—such as Sibudu Cave
and Rose Cottage Cave—have augmented our understanding of the applications
of pigmentatious materials such as iron hydroxides and iron oxides, casually referred
to as ochre (Gibson et al. 2004; Hodgskiss 2006; Lombard 2004, 2005; Wadley
2005a, b; Wadley, Williamson & Lombard 2004). In this contribution, I discuss
the evidence for the use of ochre as a component in the hafting technology of the
post-Howiesons Poort and the Howiesons Poort techno-complexes at Sibudu Cave.
Separate research will highlight broader applications of ochre, and its association
with mastic in the Later Stone Age (LSA) of South Africa (Lombard 2006). For
background on the excavations, stratigraphy and dating of Sibudu Cave, please
see Wadley & Jacobs (this volume).
58 SOUTHERN AFRICAN HUMANITIES, VOL. 18 (1), 2006
BACKGROUND TO OCHRE AS AN INGREDIENT OF MASTIC USED FOR
HAFTING AT SIBUDU CAVE
Some years ago, it was observed that many stone tools from Rose Cottage Cave
had red ochre on them; either because they were deposited in ochre-stained soil, or
used to scrape or grind ochre. However, these possibilities could not explain the
observation that many tools had ochre on their bases or non-working edges and
surfaces (Wadley 2005a). Preliminary residue analyses of stone tools from the
cave revealed the presence of ochre on many tool types. A subsequent investigation
of the distribution of residues on backed tools from the Howiesons Poort techno-
complex of Rose Cottage Cave showed that ochre and plant material were often
concentrated on or near the backed edges (Tomlinson 2001; Williamson 1997).
This distribution suggested that ochre might be part of the hafting technology, but
the sample was small and not ideal for residue analysis because it was previously
handled and marked on the ventral sides of the tools (Gibson et al. 2004).
Approximately 400 tools from post-Howiesons Poort occupation layers at Sibudu
Cave, dated between 50 and 60 ka, were subjected to residue analyses, and the
same phenomenon was recorded on many of these tools (Wadley, Williamson &
Lombard 2004; Williamson 2004).
Subsequently, Wadley (2005a) conducted replication studies to test the working
hypothesis that many tools were hafted using an adhesive in which red ochre was
an ingredient. Her work confirmed some of the observations made by other
researchers, such as Allain and Rigaud (1986), that ochre is an excellent filler for
resins and resin and wax mixtures. Ochre-loaded adhesives prove far easier to
work with than sticky resins alone, and are more easily moulded to accommodate
tools and hafts. These adhesives also dry faster than unloaded resins. Importantly,
unloaded adhesives are hydroscopic, and thus become tacky under damp conditions.
Ochre-loaded adhesives are not hydroscopic after they have been properly dried.
Furthermore, the experiments showed that tools mounted with ochre-loaded resin
were more likely to complete tasks successfully than those without. Calculations
of ochre mass, based on this replication work, indicate that the hafting hypothesis
may also account for a large proportion of pigmentatious material from MSA
archaeological sites (Wadley 2005a). Subsequent hafting experiments conducted
by Hodgskiss (2006), using no loading agents or different loading agents in the
adhesives of 60 replicated stone tools, also indicated that ochre is a successful
loading agent or aggregate. Furthermore, it was shown that adding beeswax or
sand to the resin may produce resilient tools. These observations provide valuable
guidelines for future work aimed at unravelling Stone Age adhesive recipes.
In a further study by Wadley (2005b) the ochre nodules that were ground to use in the
replicated glues were analysed. They showed that when ochre is obtained from nodules
with a hard stone core, the powder is most efficiently extracted by rotating the nodules
on coarse stone. This rotation creates facets and some nodules develop a crayon-like
shape at the stage when they need to be discarded. Microscopic examination of these
discards reveals striations and polish identical to those on archaeological ochre ‘crayons’
recovered from the MSA layers at Sibudu Cave (Wadley 2005b). This background
provides the context for the meticulous documentation and plotting of ochre residues
on all the stone tools on which I conduct microscopy.
LOMBARD: OCHRE IN MSA HAFTING TECHNOLOGY 59
SAMPLES AND METHODOLOGY
The samples used for this study comprise 24 post-Howiesons Poort points and 53
Howiesons Poort segments. Most of the tools were not touched, washed or marked
subsequent to excavation. Most of the post-Howiesons Poort points were removed during
excavation with plastic tweezers and sealed on-site in individual plastic bags (B.
Williamson pers. comm.). I excavated the Howiesons Poort tools and placed them in
airtight plastic bags immediately after removing them from the matrix. Soil samples
were collected from the excavated Howiesons Poort layers. Microscope slides were
prepared of each soil sample and these were photographed under the same magnifications
and lighting conditions as the residues on the tools. This procedure provides a record of
the microscopic morphology of the matrix from which the tools were excavated, and
allows comparison between sediments, the residues of associated tools and any matrix
adhering to the tools. The tool samples were microscopically examined at magnifications
ranging from 50x to 500x using an Olympus BX40 stereo binocular metallographic
microscope with analysing and polarising filters, and bright and dark field incident
light sources. A digital camera attachment was also used.
To establish whether there is a relationship between hafting and ochre on the tools, I
divide each of the tools into six portions. Each portion includes a dorsal and ventral
side. The post-Howiesons Poort points are placed with the dorsal sides facing upwards
and divided into right distal (portion 1), right medial (portion 2), right proximal
(portion 3), left proximal (portion 4), left medial (portion 5) and left distal portions
(portion 6). Portions 2, 3, 4 and 5 represent the areas where hafting traces can be expected
on the point sample. The segments are also placed with their dorsal sides facing upwards,
but because proximal and distal ends are often difficult or impossible to distinguish,
they are all placed with their backed edges to the left. Their portions are referred to as
upper blade (portion 1), medial blade (portion 2), lower blade (portion 3), lower back
(portion 4), medial back (portion 5) and upper back (portion 6). The backed portions 4,
5 and 6 are expected to show hafting traces on the segments. The expectations of where
hafting traces should occur were generated by previous use-trace analyses conducted
on tools of similar morphology, as well as experimental work in the case of
points (Gibson et al. 2004; Lombard 2004, 2005, Lombard et al. 2004; Williamson
A further test for the link between ochre and hafting is to establish whether the ochre
occurs in close association with a compelling hafting indicator such as resin. Although
resinous residues can also result from processing wet wood, their distribution patterns,
that is, where they occur on the tools, should indicate whether they accumulated from
working such material, or from a resin-based adhesive. Thus, for the purposes of this
study, all ochre and resin occurrences were recorded. They were plotted on line sketches
and counted in relation to the portions described above. This method highlights the
possible existence of distribution patterns and serves as a basis for further interpretation.
Although it cannot be considered an accurate quantification of the residues, it does
provide a realistic reflection of the actual distribution and concentrations of residues on
As a further control measure, a series of blind tests are being conducted at intervals
to improve the interpretation of microscopic residues (Lombard & Wadley in press;
Wadley, Lombard & Williamson 2004). Some of the tools, prepared for the Wadley
60 SOUTHERN AFRICAN HUMANITIES, VOL. 18 (1), 2006
Fig. 1. Different appearances of ochre residues deposited on replicated stone tools as a result of ochre-loaded
adhesives being used for hafting the tools to wooden hafts: (a) Ochre grains in clear resin, 500x;
(b) ochre resin and plant tissue, 100x; (c) ochre and plant fibre, 500x; (d) ochre and degrading
resin or plant tissue, 500x; (e) ochre and degrading resin or plant tissue, 100x; (f) ochre (left) with
resinous bark cells (right), 200x; (g) powdery ochre deposit, 100x; (h) ochre distribution on the
proximal edge of a tool 50x.
LOMBARD: OCHRE IN MSA HAFTING TECHNOLOGY 61
Fig. 2. Documentation of ochre occurrences on archaeological stone tools: (a–b) occurrences on post-
Howiesons Poort points from Sibudu Cave; (c–h) occurrences on Howiesons Poort segments
from Sibudu Cave. (a) ochre and resin mix on the proximal edge of a point, with bright polish
caused by friction with a wooden haft, 50x; (b) ochre, resin and degraded plant material, with
bright polish caused by friction with a wooden haft, 100x; (c) ochre grains in clear resin, 200x; (d)
ochre and resin mix, 500x; (e) ochre and degraded resin and plant tissue, 200x; (f) ochre resin and
plant fibre, 100x; (g) powdery ochre deposit, 200x; (h) ochre and resin with degrading wood
62 SOUTHERN AFRICAN HUMANITIES, VOL. 18 (1), 2006
(2005a) replication project, were used in such a blind test. Additional tools that were
included in the test were not hafted. Some were rubbed with ochre, or handled with
ochre-stained hands (Lombard & Wadley in press). A micrographic record of the residues
on these objects serves as modern reference to aid in the recognition of ochre accumulated
as a result of various applications on stone tools (Fig. 1). This source of reference,
together with other replicated tools, also applies to resin and other residue types.
Soil samples for the post-Howiesons Poort layers were not available for analysis, but
samples are being collected from the same layers in adjacent squares during the current
excavation seasons for future analysis. The stringent testing of the data derived from
the residue analysis conducted on the tools from these post-Howiesons Poort layers
significantly reduces the possibility of coincidental distribution of ochre and resinous
residues (Lombard 2004, 2005). Soil samples from the Howiesons Poort layers, from
which the tools for this study were excavated, show remarkably little ochre in the soil.
Microscopic ochre granules are very small in comparison with the residues found on
the tools, and are usually isolated single grains. It can therefore be expected that small,
isolated ochre deposits on some tools may have accumulated accidentally. However,
should clear distribution patterns emerge over a representative sample of a tool type, it
is possible to identify such accidental occurrences. Large concentrations of ochre may
conceivably accumulate on a tool that has been deposited close to an ochre nodule,
‘crayon’ or grinding stone in the soil. It is unlikely that this will happen coincidentally
on identical portions of numerous tools in a sample, though, and it is therefore essential
that wide-ranging or assemblage-level interpretations for the function or hafting
technology of a tool type are not attempted based on the residue distributions on a
single tool. Where at all possible, the dispersal of ochre residues (or any other residues)
on a sample of at least 20 or more tools of a single type should be compared to establish
the possible existence of general distribution patterns or accidental residues as a result
of coincidental contact.
The post-Howiesons Poort
Analysis of the post-Howiesons Poort sample of 24 whole points shows that 80.5 %
of all the ochre occurrences (n = 164) are located on the proximal and medial portions
(Fig. 2). The same portions contain 87 % of all the resin occurrences (n = 146)
(Table 1). The line graph (Fig. 3) shows how little the distribution patterns of the two
residues differ over the six portions used for this analysis, indicating a clear association
between the two residue types. Detailed analysis and chi-square statistical tests of the
distribution patterns of 807 residue occurrences on these points showed that the
distribution of residue types, including ochre and resin, cannot be considered coincidental
(Lombard 2004, 2005). Other use traces such as microwear and macro-fractures
contributed to the interpretation that these tools were hafted to wooden shafts and used
as hunting tools. Of all the points with ochre concentrated on their proximal and medial
sections, 68 % exhibit compelling physical evidence for hafting in the form of macro-
fractures and microwear (Lombard 2004, 2005; Wadley, Williamson & Lombard 2004).
Thus, for the post-Howiesons Poort points from Sibudu Cave, I propose that an adhesive
of ochre-loaded resin was used to hold the stone points in place. Additionally, there is
LOMBARD: OCHRE IN MSA HAFTING TECHNOLOGY 63
evidence that they were bound with plant twine to the shafts, probably in order to
withstand impact use, for which there exists generous evidence (Lombard 2005).
The Howiesons Poort
The analysis of the Howiesons Poort segments shows a clear concentration of ochre
and resin residues on the backed portions (Table 2). On the 53 tools, 502 ochre
occurrences and 585 resin occurrences were documented. A total of 80 % of the ochre
occurrences and 87 % of the resin occurrences are located on the backed portions that
are usually associated with hafting (these percentages are almost identical to those
associated with hafting traces on the post-Howiesons Poort points). In some instances
the distribution of ochre could even be observed with the naked eye along the backed
portions of the segments (Fig. 4). The line graph (Fig. 5) illustrates a clear association
Portion n of portions Ochre occurrences Resin occurrences
124114 119.5 110 117.5
224127 115.5 119 113.5
324135 123.5 142 128.5
424140 124.5 139 126.5
524130 118.5 128 119.5
624117 110.5 118116.5
Totals 164 100.5 146 100.5
Ochre and resin frequencies and percentages on the various portions of post-Howiesons Poort points
from Sibudu Cave. n = number; f = frequency.
Fig. 3. Line graph of ochre and resin distribution patterns on post-Howiesons Poort points from Sibudu
64 SOUTHERN AFRICAN HUMANITIES, VOL. 18 (1), 2006
between the distribution of ochre and resin residues on the Howiesons Poort segments
(Fig. 2). These data are interpreted as compelling direct evidence for the use of ochre in
the adhesive recipe utilised for hafting Howiesons Poort segments at Sibudu Cave. The
processing of data generated during the full residue, usewear and macro-fracture analyses
on the same sample has not been completed and interpreted yet, but it is foreseen that it
may provide more detailed information on the hafting technology, haft materials and
function(s) of Howiesons Poort segments. Comparisons with the analyses of the post-
Portion n of portions Ochre occurrences Resin occurrences
148119 114.5 122 114.5
252140 118.5 130 115.5
348143 118.5 125 114.5
4 48 105 123.5 133 122.5
5 52 162 132.5 223 138.5
6 48 123 124.5 152 126.5
Totals 502 100.5 585 100.5
Ochre and resin frequencies and percentages on the various portions of Howiesons Poort Segments from
Sibudu Cave. n = number; f = frequency.
Fig. 4. Howiesons Poort segments from Sibudu Cave with ochre along their backed portions. (a) The dorsal
and ventral sides of the same tool (b & c). Ventral sides of two individual tools.
LOMBARD: OCHRE IN MSA HAFTING TECHNOLOGY 65
Howiesons Poort points have the potential to highlight subtle differences in the hafting
technologies of the two techno-complexes. Differences may include variations in
adhesive recipes, methods of application and materials used for binding, hafting
materials, and tool functions.
These results convincingly substantiate the hypothesis that ground ochre was used as
a component of adhesives in the hafting technologies of post-Howiesons Poort points
and Howiesons Poort segments at Sibudu Cave. The direct evidence provided here for
the functional application of pigmentatious materials during the MSA in southern Africa
expands our understanding of its versatility and value in prehistory. The evidence is not
interpreted as an alternative explanation for the possible symbolic role of ochre. Past
human material culture contains many examples of objects or features that possessed
layered purposes ranging from utilitarian to symbolic (for example, Deacon 1992;
Lombard 2002, 2003; Lombard & Parsons 2003; Ouzman 1997; Tilley 1999; Wadley
1987; Whelan 2003; Wonderley 2005). Thus, one hypothesis or interpretation can seldom
encompass all the meanings that an item, substance or feature represented for the diverse
societies who used it over time.
Developing various hypotheses, or using different methodologies to investigate the
roles of ochre found in archaeological contexts, has the potential to contribute to a
more comprehensive understanding of past complexities in human behaviour—both
technological and symbolic. Each method or avenue of investigation leads to data or
insights that may underscore particular aspects rather than others. By downplaying,
Fig. 5. Line graph of ochre and resin distribution patterns on Howiesons Poort segments from Sibudu Cave.
66 SOUTHERN AFRICAN HUMANITIES, VOL. 18 (1), 2006
disregarding or eliminating the possible functional value of a commonly preserved,
excavated and analysable material, such as ochre, we may impoverish the scope of our
knowledge of past human behaviour.
The series of studies conducted to understand the functional application of ochre as
part of MSA hafting technology, such as residue analyses, replication work and
experimentation, has increased our comprehension of the technological behaviour of
humans during this period in southern Africa. Results obtained from these projects
imply that the toolmakers had considerable technical skill and that they understood the
properties of the ingredients that are suitable for the manufacture of adhesives (Wadley
2005a). Furthermore, the research shows that these skills and insights were applied to
the production of a variety of composite tools over the span of at least two MSA techno-
complexes at Sibudu Cave.
Being part of the ‘colourful’ Sibudu Cave and ACACIA research teams is an
opportunity for which I thank Prof. Lyn Wadley. My appreciation goes to Isabelle Parsons
and Bronwen van Doornum who read early drafts, as well as Erella Hovers and Peter
Mitchell who refereed the paper. I also thank the Archaeology Department of the
University of the Witwatersrand for the use of their microscope and digital micrograph
equipment for the duration of this study. My research is funded by the Palaeontological
Scientific Trust and supported by the Natal Museum. Opinions expressed herein, and
possible oversights, are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Trust
or the Museum.
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