Archaeologists have determined that the ancient people who lived in the Mezmai cave in the North Caucasus used multicomponent paints 31 thousand years ago. They consisted of bitumen and white and red clay with a protein binder based on gelatin glue. To get such glue, people boiled the skin or bones of animals. To date, this is the oldest evidence of boiling in history. The results of the study, supported by a grant from the Russian Science Foundation (RNF), are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

There is a world—famous archaeological monument in the North Caucasus - the Mezmai Cave. This place has served as a parking lot for tens of thousands of years, first for Neanderthals (in the period from 100-70 to 40 thousand years ago), and then for modern humans (39-23 thousand years ago). The unique preservation of organic materials makes it possible to use samples from this cave in genetic studies of humans and animals, as well as to study the remains of organic matter on stone and bone tools, as well as jewelry.

Archaeologists from the ANO "Laboratory of Prehistory" (St. Petersburg) during excavations in the Mezmay cave discovered bone ornaments from the Upper Paleolithic era (aged 31-23 thousand years ago). The researchers assumed that traces of paint remained on the surface of some products, and handed over four ornaments made of bones, teeth and a mammoth tusk to colleagues from the A.V. Topchiev Institute of Petrochemical Synthesis of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow). Using a comprehensive methodology, scientists were able to determine the chemical composition of ancient paints on archaeological samples.

One of the studied jewelry was a small — about 18 mm in length — bone pendant aged about 31-27.5 thousand years. On both sides it is covered with a layer of black coloring matter. Another pendant is made of a tooth of a hoofed animal, probably a Caucasian tour, and is 25.5–23.2 thousand years old. There are remnants of a red substance around the part of the hole into which the thread was threaded, as well as on the root of the tooth.

The third object studied is a patch bead made of mammoth tusk, the age of which is estimated at 27-22.5 thousand years. It has a shape close to a rectangle with rounded edges and a hole in the center. In the upper left corner of the find, the authors found an ornament of six punctures in the form of dots, and on both surfaces of the artifact they noticed remnants of substances of black and red color.

Finally, the fourth decoration is a flat patch-bead about 25.5–23.2 thousand years old, made from a mammoth tusk. This patch has an almost square shape with three rounded sides and one straight line. There is a small hole in its center, and remnants of a black substance have been preserved on both sides of the decoration.

Spectral analysis showed that the chemical composition of the black paint on the jewelry corresponds to the organic pigment bitumen, and the red one corresponds to the mineral dye red bolus or kaolin. The researchers determined that traces of a protein compound were present in ancient paints, which most likely served as an adhesive and made the dye more resistant. This component of the dye became an extremely important find, since it could only be obtained artificially by boiling the skin or bones of animals. Thus, the find has become the oldest example of the use of boiling to date.

"Our study showed for the first time that the Upper Paleolithic people, who lived about 31 thousand years ago, decorated jewelry with paints of a complex composition of organic and inorganic components. A particularly important discovery was that they used gelatin animal glue. Bitumen, red bolus and kaolin could be extracted by people from natural sources, but glue could only be obtained artificially using boiling. In the future, we plan to continue exploring the artifacts of the Mezmai Cave," says Lyubov Golovanova, PhD in History, Chief Researcher at the ANO Laboratory of Prehistory, head of the project supported by the RNF grant.

The authors emphasize that the study of personal jewelry, including the techniques of coloring them in different colors, better than any other aspect of material culture, allows us to trace the development of symbolic thinking and social consciousness systems among people of the Stone Age.

Information provided by the press service of the Russian Science Foundation

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