Early Neanderthals used red ochre

Neanderthals already used iron oxides 250,000 years ago, much earlier than had been thought up to now. This is what Prof. Wil Roebroeks, Professor of Archaeology, and a number of colleagues will say in an article to be published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More complete

Roebroeks and his colleagues made their discovery during the investigation of small (< 1 cm) specks of red powder found in excavations at Maastricht-Belvédère. The discovery gives a more complete picture of the materials used by the early Neanderthals and of their culture as a whole. We also know now that the use of red ochre was not a specific characteristic of early-modern people in South Africa, which is what was assumed up to now. In a previous study, traces of the use of red ochre were discovered in South Africa. What exactly the Neanderthals used red ochre for is unclear.


The red ochre in the material from Maastricht was found using different scan methods. The results showed the presence of haematite (a mineral that contains iron oxide) in the material. Haematite did not occur in that area and must therefore have been imported from elsewhere, perhaps even miles away. The amounts found are too small to be able to form any conclusions about their exact origin.

Oldest traces

The Belvédère excavations (1981-1991) are internationally known in archaeological circles. They represent the most well preserved traces of inhabitation of early Neanderthals in the Netherlands and have provided a great deal of knowledge about the behaviour of hominids in the Middle Palaeolithic (300,000 to 35,000 years ago).


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Last Modified: 30-01-2012