Experts discovered that paint used as far back as the ancient times contained an ingredient also important to human consumption today as food or beverage - milk.

An international team of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder as well as experts from the University of Witwatersrand found 49,000-year-old paint with a milk-and-ochre base and which the Ancient Africans probably used to adorn themselves with or as a decoration on stone and wooden slabs.

The researchers found the mixture of powdered paint in a layer of Sibudu Cave,near the edge of a flake of stone.  Sibudu Cave is a rock shelter in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Africa.  Anatomically modern humans occupied the area during the Middle Stone Age, about 77,000 to 38,000 years ago.

Findings about this newly-discovered ancient milk-and-ochre based paint were published in an online journal in PLOS ONE.

According to the study's lead author and University of Colorado Museum of Natural History curator Paola Villa,as early as 250,000 years ago, humans have in Europe and Africa had already been making use of ochre.  However, it was only recently that they found that ochre was used with milk in creating paint.

"Although the use of the paint still remains uncertain, this surprising find establishes the use of milk with ochre well before the introduction of domestic cattle in South Africa," she added.

The mixture, which makes up a dried paint compound is preserved on the flake. The researchers theorized that the small stone was used to mix milk and ochre.  Alternatively, the flake could also have been used to apply the ancient paint.  Through high-tech elemental and chemical analyses, the researchers detected the presence of a major milk protein - casein.

The researchers say that the Ancient Africans most likely killed lactating bovid family members like the buffalo, eland, kudu and impala.  Villa noted that this suggests that the people then are likely to have "attributed a special significance and value to that product".

During that time, cattle were not yet domesticated in South Africa until 1,000 to 2,000 years ago, according to Villa. 

Ochre served a number of purposes in the Middle Stone Age - as an adhesive in wooden and stone tools, a preservative of hides and for body paint.  Ancient Africans have been known to use paint to decorate their bodies.

Photo: Daniel R. Blume | Flickr

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