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Cognitive Requirements for Ochre Use in the Middle Stone Age at Sibudu, South Africa

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 November 2014

Tammy Hodgskiss*
School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies and the Evolutionary Sciences Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag 3, WITS 2050, Johannesburg, South Africa Email:


Ochre is found at many Middle Stone Age sites and its use is often associated with enhanced mental abilities and symbolism, but the links between the visible uses of ochre and cognition have not been clearly defined. By establishing the technology and processes involved in using ochre, one can determine the skill, knowledge and cognitive abilities required to execute those activities. This is done here by constructing thought-and-action and inferential cognitive sequences for the various ochre activities performed at Sibudu, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Powder production alone is not an indicator of complex cognitive processes, although some planning, foresight and knowledge of materials is required. Some ochre powder was used in the creation of hafting adhesives which is a cognitively demanding process requiring attention-switching, response inhibition, analogical reasoning and abstract thought. The direct transfer of ochre powder from an ochre piece to a soft material through grinding and rubbing requires some complex thought and action procedures — analogical reasoning and the ability to multi-task and switch attention between activities. Scoring a piece of ochre with a sharp tool does not necessitate enhanced executive functioning. However, some engravings demonstrate intentionality and an awareness of space and symmetry that may imply abstract thought.

Copyright © The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research 2014 

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