Alice C. Linsley
The Lebombo Mountains in Southern Mozambique, Swaziland and Eastern South Africa have proved to be archaeologically rich. The Swaziland side is mostly volcanic rock. In this region there are mines which appear to have been in operation between 40,000 to 80,000 years ago. These were not small hallows in the earth, but major mining operations.
“One of the largest sites evidenced the removal of a million kilos of ore. At another site half a million stone-digging tools were found, all showing considerable wear. All of the sites in fact produced thousands of tools and involved the removal of large quantities of ore; and while some were open quarries, others had true mining tunnels.” (From here.)
At Lion Cavern it is estimated that at least 1 200 tons of soft haematite ore had been removed in archaic times.
What ore was so important that it would be mined on such a scale and be used almost universally in Paleolithic burial sites? They were mining red ochre, an ancient and universal symbol of blood, the liquid of life. Stan Gooch explains:
Everyone, both heretic and orthodox, and including the present-day users of ochre themselves, agree that it represents blood. A very common interpretation, and one that we can readily accept here, is that just as a new baby comes into the world covered with blood, so the corpse must also be covered with blood to facilitate, or perhaps cause, the re-birth of the deceased in the spirit world beyond. Birth blood is therefore one very probable meaning.
A further significance (borne out also by much other evidence) is given by the Unthippa aboriginal women. They say that their own female ancestors once caused large quantities of blood to flow from their vulvas, which then formed the deposits of red ochre found throughout the world. So we can say that red ochre also represents menstrual blood: in both cases therefore female blood connected with the birth process. (We shall later be able to be even more precise and say that ochre is the menstrual blood of the Moon Mother; or more properly, the placental blood which covered the Earth when She gave birth to it.) (http://www.aulis.com/twothirds8.htm)
The Lebombo Mountains in Swaziland is the region where these mines have been found. This is also where H.B.S. Cooke and his associates report the discovery of the oldest known human burial, perhaps between 46,000 and 80,000 years old. The site is that of a small boy, buried with a seashell pendant and covered in red ochre. These same archaeologists report the finding of the Lebombo bone, at least 35,000 years old, at Border Cave in Natal. The Lebombo bone is the oldest mathematical tool found to date and appears to be a moon phase counter. It counts up to 6 phases, which suggests that it represents a binary calendar. This bone is associated with the people who were mining red ochre.
Red ochre burial
The earliest known use of red ochre powder (300,000 years) is at the site GnJh-03 in the Kapthurin Formation of East Africa, and at Twin Rivers in Zambia.
The use of red ochre in burial was widespread in prehistoric times. A man buried 45,000 years ago at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southern France, was packed in red ochre. “The Red Lady of Paviland” in Wales was buried in red ochre about 20,000 years ago. Her skeletal remains and burial artifacts are encrusted with the red ore.
Australian burial sites dating to about 20,000 years reveal pink staining of the soil around the skeleton, indicating that red ochre had been sprinkled over the body. The remains of an adult male found at Lake Mungo in southeastern Australia were copiously sprinkled with red ochre.
The ‘Fox Lady’ of Doini Vestonice, Czechoslovakia (near Russia) who was burial 23,000 years ago, was also covered in red ochre.
A 20,000 year old burial site in Bavaria reveals a thirty-year-old man entirely surrounded by a pile of mammoth tusks and nearly submerged in a mass of red ochre.
In the La Braña-Arintero cave in the Cantabrian Mountains of Spain, 7000 year old skeletons were discovered in 2006. The bodies were covered with red ochre.
Two flexed burials were found in Mehrgarh, Pakistan with a covering of red ochre on the bodies. These date from about 5000 BC.
Native Americans used red ochre for ceremonies and burial.
John Greenway tells this story concerning the influence of red ochre among Australian Aborigines today:
The most terrifying physical inquisitors in aboriginal Australia are the little known Red Ochre Men… It is astonishing how little is known by outsiders of the Red Ochre Men. Many whites who have learned about everything else of aboriginal life have not even heard of them, so well enforced is the omerta among even those of the aborigines who wish the whole organisation ended… The cult is nearly universal in aboriginal Australia… In the deserts the Red Ochre cult moves right across the land in the course of a year, carrying its own ceremonies and myths, touching all tribes in its path, and working as a kind of ecclesiastical circuit court embodying all processes of the religious judiciary.
The function of the court is to punish law-breakers — not so much the perpetrators of everyday misdemeanours like spear fights and wife-beating, but those felons who blaspheme the laws incorporated in the myths. If, for example, the young man on trial in Meekatharra had really shown the tjurunga [the law sticks] to women, his only chance to escape the Red Ochre Men would have been to flee from his tribal jurisdiction and live in a city or large well-policed town among other fugitives from their honour and their heritage.
The Red Ochre men are Aboriginal priests in that they alone are responsible for blood sacrifice to re-establish community/communion. The shedding of blood is done according to the sacred laws and offered with prayer and priestly ritual. Here again we find evidence that the priest resolves issues of blood guilt and anxiety surrounding the shedding of blood through killing or menstruation or the birth process.
Among every "primitive" society studied by anthropologists a preoccupation with blood has been noted. A principle of anthropology that applies here is: The wider the distribution of a trait, the older it is. Since the use of red ochre as a symbol of blood is virtually universal, we may conclude that it is very old and that the earliest populations regarded blood as a primal substance akin to water.
The oldest known religious offices are the priest and the shaman. They serve similar roles in their communities but they represent different worldviews. Yet for both blood and water are the most fundamental substances of life.
Red ochre was used cosmetically and for cave art among peoples who inhabited rock shelters. A 50,000 year old ochred mammoth tooth plaque was found in Tata, Hungary. Many of symbols found in rock shelters of Africa, Indonesia and Australia were made by archaic humans using red ocher.
Related reading: Blood and Binary Distinctions; Life is in the Blood; What Constitutes Being?; African Religion Predates Hinduism; Theories of Primal Substance; Red Ochre and Red Deer at Ancient Burial Sites