400,000 year old “makeup” the precursor to cave art?

Our family was using pigments before they made cave art. What could they have been doing? Some think it they were using them as makeup.

During the last ice age, humans figure out that you could use naturally occurring pigments to paint on the wall. But they weren’t the first to play with this “paint”. Our family had actually been using it for hundreds of thousands of years. Yet no cave art dates from this period. Instead, some speculate that they might have been using it as makeup.

And I’m not talking about just giving yourself rosy cheeks. Some researchers argue that this makeup was part of a huge ritual that actually influenced our evolution. They claim that it was used to help hide fertility in females (by faking menstruation). This allowed women to dictate the terms of mating, as only they knew when babies could be made. The result was makeup playing a key role in human evolution.

Ancient makeup

Being artsy seems to be a fairly old human trait. Whilst everyone might think of cave art as the prototypical ancient art, it’s actually got a much deeper history. In fact, almost a million years ago our ancestors were making tools with such a care for aesthetics some argue they should be considered art. 

Pigment use could be up there as another case of super-old art. We know humans were using it at least 100,000 years ago. Neanderthals that old have also been found with pigments. There are some pigment sites which are claimed to be even older, potentially up to 300,000 years old. Almost all of these ancient sites use hematite, a naturally occurring iron-based pigment also called ochre. It can be anything from yellow to red to black.

Neanderthal pigment, perhaps they also used makeup

At the same time, no cave art is known to be this old. And no tools have been found with pigment on. So we know that they weren’t decorating these objects with the ochre. Which leads to the conclusion that these pigments must have been used as makeup.

However, there are alternatives. Those pretty tools could just be tools. Similarly, there are some practical explanations for relatives using pigment. Modern hunter-gatherers have a range of boring uses for this sort of pigment. These range from insect repellant, food preservative, medication, glue-ingredient, and even for help with tanning hides.

Putting on a show

So we might be dealing with a case of ancient makeup. Or we might not be. However, there are some researchers who are not only convinced that this ochre was used for makeup but they know what was being done with the makeup.

Enter the female cosmetic coalition hypothesis or FCC.  This is an idea that has been fermenting for a few decades and goes something like this. Menstruation provides a rough guide to female fertility. Thus, a stingy male could use that information to only care for women when they know they can get sum fuk. So to encourage males caring about them all year round, females could use red pigment to fake menstruation and hide their fertility cycle.

Well, that’s the cosmetic “C” of the FCC taken care of. What about the coalitions? Well, these stem from the fact that if just one female hid their fertility then males would just go elsewhere. For it to be effective most women have to band together and also mask menstruation. The result would be coalitions of women forming who would work together to maximise their fitness.

Some even argue that the resulting arms race may have driven a cognitive explosion as males and females developed more complex ways to maintain a coalition, or try and break it apart. This makeup could have altered the course of our evolution.

Story time

Well, that’s a lovely, albeit bloody, story. But is there any evidence for it? Well, there is some. The idea has sustained for decades. And whoever heard of an idea persisting without evidence? However, most of it is highly circumstantial.

For example, ochre does have non-makeup uses. However, some early sites use specularite. This is a shiny form of ochre that has limited applications outside of decoration. Plus, a lot of it is red. That’s the colour of blood. In fact, at several early sites red was preferentially collected over other locally available colours. Unfortunatley the evidence doesn’t get much stronger than that. From shiny red pigments you’re supposed to infer an entire ritual display that influenced the course of human evolution.

In fact, I may have oversold the evidence to some degree. Non-red pigment is very rare, but not unknown from this period. And not all of the red pigment is particularly. . . red. Many lie closer to the brown side of things, but are nevertheless still held up as evidence on the grounds that it “may have been redder at deposition”.

Some of the pigments that may have been redder in the past and then used as makeup.

But just because some people have drawn some rather unusual conclusions from this ochre doesn’t disguise the main point. Our ancestors were using pigment thousands of years before they daubed it on cave walls. There was likely some artistic component to this behaviour, lending further support to the fact that our family has a very creative history. 


Knight, C., Power, C. and Watts, I., 1995. The human symbolic revolution: a Darwinian account. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 5(01), pp.75-114.

Roebroeks, W., Sier, M.J., Nielsen, T.K., De Loecker, D., Parés, J.M., Arps, C.E. and Mücher, H.J., 2012. Use of red ochre by early Neandertals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(6), pp.1889-1894.

Watts, I., Chazan, M., Wilkins, J., Barham, L., Coulson, S., Kuhn, S.L., Power, C., Watts, I., Chazan, M. and Wilkins, J., 2016. Early Evidence for Brilliant Ritualized Display: Specularite Use in the Northern Cape (South Africa) between∼ 500 and∼ 300 Ka. Current Anthropology, 57(3), pp.000-000.

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