A Shroud of Ochre

A Study of Pre-Contact Mortuary Ochre Use in North America

Thesis (M.A.) 2007 84 Pages



Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables








List of Figures and Tables

List of Figures

3.1 Regional Distribution of MBT Sites

3.2 Gouges from Turner Farm

3.3 Various Celts from the Port au Choix Site

3.4 Various Bayonets from Maine Sites

3.5 Ramah Chert Points

4.1 Spatial Distribution of the Study Groups

4.2 Temporal Distribution of the Study Groups

List of Tables

3.1 Classification of Stone Implements by Moorehead

4.1 Characteristics of Complexity in the Study Groups

4.2 Forms of Ochre Use in Mortuary Contexts

Chapter One


This research seeks to investigate the cultural characteristics of those prehistoric North American groups who practiced the custom of mortuary ochre use. Using the people of the Moorehead Burial Tradition as the basis for comparison, this study examines nine additional groups using an eight-trait criterion for determining levels of complexity among hunter-gatherers. The primary goal for this research is to examine the cultural traits to ascertain whether the custom of mortuary ochre use was more common among simple or complex hunter-gatherer societies. The study also examines possible patterns in spatial and temporal distribution, mortuary ochre morphology, and cultural trait similitude.

The focus of the study is pre-contact mortuary ochre use in North America, with North America being defined to include Alaska, Canada, the continental United States, and Mexico. The criteria used are those traits commonly associated with complexity among hunter-gatherers which can be inferred from the archaeological record. The groups chosen were those practicing mortuary ochre usage and whose presence is adequately visible through material remains.

This first chapter seeks to introduce the topic of the study. It discusses the purpose and objectives behind the research into pre-contact mortuary ochre use in North America. The chapter concludes with a summary of the chapters.

Chapter Two begins with an examination of the characteristics of ochre. This is followed by an overview of ochre in the archaeological record worldwide, including a look at its contextual uses. Finally, the theories regarding ochre’s symbolism to early man are examined and the possible significance of ochre in the archaeological record is discussed.

Chapter Three provides an in-depth look at those people who practiced the Moorehead Burial Tradition. This group, originally termed the “Red Paint People,” first brought the custom of prehistoric mortuary ochre use into the public’s eye. This chapter looks at the burial practices, subsistence economy, technology, trade network, and social organization of this culture. This examination serves as the basis for the comparisons in the following chapter.

Chapter Four investigates pre-contact mortuary ochre usage in North America. It provides an overview of the cultures in the group study and analyses the temporal and spatial distributions of the groups. The chapter outlines the criterion used for determining levels of complexity among the hunting-gathering groups and draws conclusions based on the comparison of these cultural traits. An assessment of the morphological uses of ochre in mortuary contexts among these groups is also made. The chapter concludes with a consideration of the commonalities in cultural characteristics within the study groups.

Chapter Five concludes the report by providing a brief summary of the study. It also proposes areas of research that would further broaden understanding in the prehistoric ochre use in mortuary contexts.

This paper contains data from a sampling of groups whose cultural characteristics are interpreted almost wholly on material remains and ethnographic analogies. Such information should be evaluated in that context and the relevance of the data acknowledged with some caution.

Chapter Two

Ochre Use in Prehistory


Though the focus of this paper deals with North American ochre use in mortuary contexts, this chapter looks at ochre’s multifarious contexts from a worldwide perspective in order to present a broader understanding of the importance of ochre to aboriginal groups in the New World. Ochre apparently captivated the imagination of numerous prehistoric groups throughout the world. Its prevalence and endurance in the archaeological record indicates an “aboriginal preoccupation” with the pigment (Stafford et al, 2003: 88). This attraction to ochre, as Wreschner (1980:633) describes it, is “like a red thread” that is woven through the millennia of human history.

Characteristics of Ochre

Possibly the greatest drawback in the study of prehistoric ochre use deals with determining the definition of “ochre” as it is used in the archaeological record. Hausler (1980:636) notes that the term “ochre” is often used in the most general term to designate a red or reddish colorant. Since red pigment can be obtained by processing haematite, limonite, and ferruginized sandstones, “ochre” may be such a generic term as to be misleading (Butzer, 1980:635). Since chemical analysis is rarely performed on pigments found at archaeological sites, it is impossible to determine the exact composition of all the pigments designated as “ochre” in the archaeological record. Additionally, red colorants, including ochre, have been variously termed as “pigments,” “paints,” “iron oxide” and “haematite” in excavation reports and journals (Beck, 1995; Koerper and Mason, 1998; Wallace, 1947; Willoughby, 1915). Despite appeals for greater specification in the recording of archaeological finds of pigments (Butzer, 1980; Delaporte, 1980; Wreschner, 1980), there continues to be a certain amount of ambiguity regarding the use of the term “ochre” in archaeological contexts.

Ehrlich (1996: 691), in his book, Geomicrobiology, defines ochre as an iron oxide ore (FeOOH). Red ochre is one variety of a large family of iron-based mineral pigments. These natural pigments derive from four basic types of iron ores- haematite, limonite, siderite, and magnetite. The colour classification of ochre depends on the specific composition. Usually, the higher the concentration of iron, the redder the deposit will be. Haematite (Fe2O3) has a chemical composition of iron and oxygen and ranges in colour from a very light pink to a very dark red and ranges in hardness between 5.5 and 6.5 on Mohs’ scale (Stafford et al, 2003: 81). ). Red ochre is composed of 69.9% iron and 29.9% oxygen with trace amounts of other elements (Tankersley et al, 1995: 186). Of the four types of iron ore, haematite is the most frequently found in geological and soil formations (Erlandson et al, 1999: 517). Deposits of haematite can be formed from a variety of processes, including sedimentation and metamorphism. It is found nearly universally throughout the rock strata and is common in Europe, Australia, the Middle East, and North America (Stafford et al, 2003: 82).

Ochre can be easily obtained by digging into an exposed deposit. It can then be crushed or scraped to produce a powder. The powdered ochre was often combined with a liquid base such as animal fat to form a semi-permanent pigment. Ochre pigment is unmatched in its ability to penetrate porous sandstone and to bond with a stabilizing base where it becomes almost indestructible (Bednarik, 1994: 73). Its durability enables it to be well preserved in the archaeological record - not surprising since artefacts from the mineral world often comprise the majority of remains from prehistoric sites (Charles et al, 2004: 43)- and enabled it to be an effective colorant even into historic times as barn paint (Stafford et al, 2003: 83).

Worldwide use of ochre in prehistory

Tracing the history of ochre use by human populations continues to be a challenge to archaeologists and its significance a topic of debate. Wreschner (1980: 631) cites Leakey’s (1958) recovery of ochre at an early hominid occupation site as the “earliest recorded appearance of ochre in the archaeological record.” Later study questioned whether the 500,000 year-old artefact was actually ochre or reddened volcanic tuff (Oakley 1981, cited by Chase 2006: 156). This argument aside, it is apparent that ochre was associated with human industries as far back as the time of homo erectus, about 300,000 B.P., long before its metallurgic properties were discovered (Schmandt-Besserat 1980:143).

In Africa, ochre has been clearly associated with at least two archaeological sites dating to about 230,000 years ago (Chase, 2006: 156). Though no evidence clearly proves that the ochre from these early sites were used in a culturally significant way, two pieces of ochre from the Middle Stone Age levels of Blombos Cave in South Africa do provide evidence of what Chase (2006:149) terms as “elaborated culture” in association with the artefacts. The substantiation to this claim comes from a detailed analysis (Henshilwood et al, 2002:1279) of the preparation, engraving, technique, and design displayed by the markings on both pieces of ochre which represent intentional, complex, geometric motifs. Additional support to this assumption comes from excavations at the Middle Stone Age Klasies River Mouth site (Singer and Wymer, 1982: 117), where ochre bearing clear signs of use was found. These proofs give strong evidence that ochre was being used in cultural contexts in Africa by at least 77,000 B.P.

In Europe, the use of ochre can be traced back further than the period of cave art (Sagona, 1994:36). There are reports of ochre recovered from Late Acheulian sites at Ambrona, Terra Amata, and Be?ov which date between 400,000 and 230,000 B.P. (Erlandson et al, 1999:518) and indications of ochre use from a site in Maastricht- Belvedere in the Netherlands (Chase, 2006:156). Marshack (1981: 189) refers to ochre discoveries at Achenheim, France (dating to about 300,000 B.P.) and at Be?ov in the Czech Republic (dating to about 250,000 B.P.) which give evidence of an ochre technology in the Acheulian.

The presence of ochre in Middle Palaeolithic sites in Europe is generally more documented. Ochre has been found in French Mousterian contexts at Pech de l’ Aze, Arcy-sru-Cure, and at La Grotte du Renne. Ochre was also found on Neanderthal skeletons at Le Moustier and La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Scarre 2002:229). However, the ritual use of ochre in Neanderthal burials remains a disputed hypothesis. Nonetheless, with the appearance of Homo sapiens sapiens in Europe, there appears to be a significant temporal and spatial expansion of ochre customs (Wreschner 1980: 632). At least 27 Upper Palaeolithic burials with ochre have been recorded (Schmandt-Besserat 1980: 131) and over a hundred sites containing ochre have been excavated in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe (Knight 1991: 440). The Upper Palaeolithic also marks a time of increase in the number of caches of ochre, mortars and grinders for ochre preparation, and accumulations of ochre-processing debris in occupation areas (Schmandt -Besserat 1980: 144). These indications that ochre played an important role in Upper Palaeolithic society may also point to a trend toward the use of ochre more commonly in association with art, especially with polychrome paintings, which seems to have reached a climax with the caves at Lascaux and Altamira during the Magdalenian period. However, the regional use of ochre in mortuary contexts continued into the Mesolithic (Grunberg 1994) and has been found in sites throughout Europe, such as Dragsholm, Denmark; Skateholm, Sweden; and Teviec, France (Jones and MacGregor 2002: 8).

The archaeological record indicates that the early use of ochre in the Levantine was comparatively less than that of its European Palaeolithic counterparts (Wreschner, 1980: 632), but excavations at Qafzeh Cave uncovered large amounts of ochre in levels dated by thermoluminescence to about 92,000 B.P. (Pearson, 1999:149). An extensive inductive study of the site by researchers led to the conclusion that the ochre was possibly used symbolically in mortuary ritual at this site, however, no other Middle Palaeolithic sites indicate systematic use of ochre and only a few occurrences are recorded for the Upper Palaeolithic Levant (Hovers et al, 2003: 510).

As Mellars (1988: 187) points out, archaeology in Asia “remains poorly documented, poorly dated, and.. .rather poorly described.” However, recent excavations have revealed that ochre use was extensive in Asia as well. Haematite was found in burial mounds in Kazakhstan and the Ural Mountains, indicating that it was used in mortuary rituals beginning about 2600 years ago and continuing for nearly four hundred years (Tairov and Bushmakin 2000:186 - 187). There are records of Upper Palaeolithic burials with ochre discovered at Mal’ ta, Siberia and at Sungir’ in eastern Russia (Shimkin 1978: 232) as well as ochre-covered skeletons at Zhoukoudian, near Beijing (Lee and Naicheng 2002: 715). In southeast Asia, the Khok Phanom Di site in Thailand, dated about 4000 B.P., contained burials that were sprinkled with red ochre (Higham et al 1992: 39).

Australian aborigines may have been using ochre in mortuary practices as early as 30,000 B.P. At Lake Mungo in New South Wales, a male skeleton (Mungo III) was found in a shallow grave and stained red with ochre (Mellars 1988:187). Though this is the only known Pleistocene burial to use ochre, the use of ochre at Lake Mungo is believed to go back even further (Sagona 1994: 33-34). Palaeolithic burials containing ochre are more common in Australia, such as the burials at the Kow Swamp site. Dated between 15,000 and 9000 years ago, these burials in northern Victoria contained ochre as well as other grave goods (Stone and Cupper 2003:101). The large-scale procurement of ochre in prehistoric Australia is evidenced at Wilgie Mia, an ochre quarry in western Australia. This site, according to Sagona and Webb (1994: 135), is “one of the most remarkable accomplishments of mining on a large scale using simple technology anywhere in the world.” According to Tafon (2004: 34), these aborigines regarded ochre as especially sacred and often imported it over long distances throughout the period of human occupation in Australia.

In South America, ochre is found in occupation sites as early as 12,000 B.P. in Brazil (Gruhn and Bryan 1991: 344). At the Fazenda Botafogo site on the Brazilian coast near Rio de Janeiro, excavations revealed approximately fifty burials covered with a thin layer of ochre which date back about 6000 years (Weber 1976: 229). More common to the continent, though much harder to date, is the use of ochre as a pigment in rock paintings such as the Cueva de las Manos site in Argentina (Gardner 1924: 142) and the rock paintings of Taltal, Chile (Evans 1906: 22). Further north, in the area commonly referred to as Mesoamerica, burials associated with the Maya culture, such as those at Uaxactun, Guatemala (Marcus 1978: 185) and at Pacbitun, Belize (Healey 1988: 255), have sometimes included ochre. Parnell (et al 2002: 334) points out that ochre was often used as a pigment for decorative paint or as a dye for ritual purposes in caches and burials in prehistoric Mesoamerica.

Prehistoric ochre use in North America

Like the early inhabitants of Australia, the first humans to arrive in North America appear to have embraced the practice of ochre use, a custom which quickly spread throughout the continent. Burials containing ochre are found in nearly every U.S. state, in most of Canada, and in northern Mexico. They reach back from the earliest indications of human occupation in the New World and continue regionally into historic times. Ochre was included at such early burials as those at the Anzick site in Montana (Lepper 2001:2) and the Gordon Creek site in Colorado (Swedlund and Anderson 1999:570). Though debate still continues regarding some of the ages of the skeletal remains, the consensus is that these burials are around ten thousand years old and are among some of the earliest skeletons recovered in North America. The first clear evidence of ochre use in elaborate mortuary ritual is seen at the L’Anse Amour site in Labrador, Canada. This burial mound on the coast of Labrador contained a single individual and is dated to about 8000 B.P. (Renouf, 1984: 24). The use of ochre in mortuary contexts continued, though with varying frequency, well into historic times.

Ochre’s use in non-mortuary contexts also date back to the Paleo-Indian period in North America. It is a prominent feature at Clovis sites, normally occurring in the context of caches of finished artefacts and these being predominantly found on or near the American Plains (Roper 1991: 292). At these types of sites, ochre generally occurs as coating on artefacts such as was found at the Fenn cache in Wyoming and the Simon site cache in Idaho (Roper 1996: 41). Ochre is also a fairly common characteristic of Paleo- Indian habitation sites, including campsites. Its context at the Agate Basin, Cattle Guard, and Lindenmeier sites suggests that the preparation of ochre was a domestic activity (Roper 1987: 83).

The use of ochre as a medium for art is not as common in the New World as it is in Europe, but there are numerous examples of its use in this capacity. Roper (1996: 41) points out that after the Palaeolithic period, Plains Indian complexes living in areas occupied by speakers of Keresiouan languages (such as Siouan and Caddoan) were more likely to use ochre as a medium for stylistic expression than in a ritual context. The use of ochre in rock paintings has been documented at sites in Missouri (Simek and Cressler 2001:237), Texas (Turpin 1990: 266), and California (True 1954:70). It was also a common pigment in the production of pottery (Hill 1942: 532).

Ochre is also found occasionally in contexts related to animal remains. The Cooper site is a rare Folsom kill site in which ochre has been found (Roper 1987: 83). The interment of dogs in association with ochre, with or near human burials, has also been found (Tuck 1976: 16). In two separate sites in California, ochre was present in the ritual burials of a coyote (Heizer and Fenenga 1939: 389) and two horses and a burro (Ireland 2005).

Ochre Mining in Prehistory

The procurement of ochre worldwide by early prehistoric groups is also richly evidenced in the archaeological record. At least 1200 metric tons of haematite are believed to have been mined from a cliff at Lion Cavern in Swaziland during prehistoric times (Chase 2006:157). Quarry deposits dating to over 43,000 B.P. make this one of the oldest mines in the world (Erlandson et al, 1999:618). In North America, the vast spatial extent of ochre mining is indisputably supported by archaeological and ethnographic data (Erlandson et al 1999: 518). Wallace (1947: 272) notes that, as of 1947, more than a dozen prehistorically worked haematite deposits had already been identified in the state of California alone. The Powers II site in Wyoming is possibly the earliest North American Palaeolithic quarry, dating back some 11,000 years (Stafford et al, 2003: 71).

Contextual Uses Worldwide

While the exact context of ochre use at some of the earliest sites may be disputed, there is no question that by Europe’s Upper Palaeolithic, ochre was at least being used as a pigment (Chase 2006: 157). It is also evident that as ochre usage increased in frequency its contextual uses became more diverse and complex. Though it continued throughout prehistory to be used as a predominant pigment for rock paintings and pottery decorations, it is probable that it was also used as a pigment for perishable materials such as bark, wood, basketry, and vegetal fibres (Schmandt-Besserat 1980: 144) and for body painting- which continued among many groups well into the historic period (Wallace 1947: 273). At the time of European contact, body-painting was so predominant among aboriginal groups in the Americas that is has been proposed (Knight 1991:418; Sauer 1966: 56) as the reason why natives of the New World came to be called “Red Indians.”

Ochre is believed to have been used frequently for staining human and animal bones, in mortuary and non-mortuary contexts, though some scholars believe that many of these associations may be spurious (Butzer 1980:635). Nevertheless, it is significant that seven of Europe’s sixteen Mesolithic sites which included ochre are burials of ochre- stained skulls (Wreschner 1980: 632). The staining of human bones for secondary burials was a common practice among Australian Aborigines (Tafon 2004: 37) and Palaeoindian sites in North America frequently contain ochre-stained human bones and/or animal bones (Tankersley et al 1995: 185).

Ochre is believed to have had functional purposes as well. It has been suggested, based on ochre markings on stone blocks, that it was used as a tool in the building process of the Great Pyramid in Egypt (Stocks 2003: 574). There is also evidence that ochre was incorporated into the boat-making technology at Eel Point on San Clemente Island in California nearly 8000 years ago (Cassidy et al 2004:121). In Jordan, a Neolithic bead-making site bears evidence that ochre was used to colour the stone beads produced there (Wright and Garrand 2003: 271).

More ephemeral contexts have been suggested for ochre which are not as apparent in the archaeological record. Velo (1984: 674) and Erlandson et al (1999:517) suggest the possible use of ochre as a medicine. Wadley (2005: 587-601) used replication studies to show that ochre was probably used as part of an adhesive for hafting tools. It is believed that ochre was used cosmetically in ancient Egypt and Russia (Tairov and Bushmakin 2002: 185, 189). Additional uses that have been suggested include ochre’s use as a polish (Chandler 2001:6), a preservative (Erlandson et al 1999: 517), and for tanning (Schmandt-Besserat 1980:144).

Ochre’s Symbolism

The inclusion of ochre in archaeological features is believed to go beyond possible utilitarian purposes since, as Chase (2006: 127) points out, nearly all objects in complex cultures will have both a utilitarian function and a symbolic meaning. In archaeology it is customary to classify artefacts by their function, a process that may overlook the symbolic significance and limit the scope of the interpretation. Robb (1998:341) cautions that symbolism that crosses boundaries between functional and cultural may be a key to understanding how objects were understood and used. In the case of ochre, Marshack (1981: 190) believes that the symbolic uses of ochre occurred early in modern man’s development, became widespread, and manifested in a range of symbolic contexts. Though the entire spectrum of symbolic contexts of ochre may not be positively determined without an understanding of its “syntagmatic neighbours” (Jacobson-Widding 1980:637), some associations may be hypothesized from historic and ethnographic records.

Man’s early and prolonged interest in ochre has prompted numerous studies on symbolism and the colour “red” (Pickford 1972, Weitman 1973). This research has indicated a cultural preference for red that goes beyond an individual preference for that colour (Wreschner 1980: 631). The global aspect of this cultural preference prompted the idea that it may be the result of biological evolutionary processes (Berlin and Kay 1969, Bolton 1980, Wreschner 1980). Whatever its origins, it appears evident that ochre was collected for its symbolic, as well as functional purposes, and that its symbolism was closely tied to its colour.

One possible explanation for ochre’s attraction is its colour association with blood. Boivin (2004:16) believes that ochre was commonly associated with blood because of its colour and the fact that, when mixed with water, it strongly resembles spilled blood. This possible correlation between ochre and blood is reinforced by linguistic associations. Wreschner (1980:633) points out the relationship between the name of the mineral, haematite, and the Greek word for blood, haema. This connection is further strengthened by the dual definition of the Greek word, miltos, which literally meant “red ochre,” but was also a magical word for blood (Alinei 1981:444). In the same way, Alinei draws on the Latin word for red ochre, rubrica, which by medieval times had come to mean “to make red with blood,” to stress the strong linguistic correlation between ochre and blood.

A symbolic link between ochre and blood would infer a ritualistic element into ochre’s use since many early beliefs associate blood with creation, life, and death (Stafford et al 2003:85). Ochre’s frequent inclusion in mortuary contexts implies a probable symbolic connection with death. Bolton (1980:634) argues that, due to its connotation of power, red is the most appropriate colour to use in symbolizing defiance of death. Though Marschak (1981: 189) warns against making associations regarding ochre’s symbolism among prehistoric groups, numerous ethnographic studies, such as those mentioned by Robinson (2204: 96) and Stafford (et al 2003: 88), show that aboriginal groups frequently associated ochre with death.

In view of the ochre’s possible associations, it is reasonable to theorize that some prehistoric groups attributed ochre with supernatural abilities. Bolton (1980:634) postulates that part of the “magic” of ochre may have derived from its transformation when heated. When roasted, red ochre’s colour intensifies and yellow ochre turns to red (Schmandt-Besserat 1980:129). Whatever the source of the belief, Stafford (et al 2003:85-86) points to numerous cases from the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), a database of ethnographic information, which indicate that the cultural choice of ochre as a colouring agent is frequently based on worldviews regarding the supernatural and that its ritual use indicates a “complex and dynamic system of cultural beliefs.” Brown (1997:473) agrees with the idea of ochre’s spiritual symbolism and speculates that its use in mortuary contexts may have been a shamanic practice.

The Significance of Ochre in the Archaeological Record

The value of ochre to prehistoric aboriginal groups is sufficient reason to consider it an important aspect in the study of the archaeological record. However, it is the implications behind the use of ochre among early humans which make it such a compelling topic of study. The use of symbolism is widely considered to be a component of cognitive thinking. Much debate has been spent on determining when prehistoric humans first developed to the level of true cognitive thinking and much of the discussion has related to man’s initial use of symbolism as the determinant of cognitive thinking. Chase (2006:121) notes that it is in the archaeological record that man’s earliest use of symbolism will be evidenced. Many archaeologists (Bolton 1980:634: Hovers et al 2003: 509; Wreschner 1980: 633) believe that the symbolism associated with ochre and its ritual use among Palaeolithic man reveals cognitive processes. As a result, the study of ochre in archaeological contexts has become a major component in the discussion over what might comprise “a material signature” for symbolizing capabilities in humans (DeBoer 2005: 66).

In much the same way that ochre is being used in the debate over the origin of symbolic thought, the use of ochre among Palaeolithic groups has also become a factor in the debate over the origins and dispersion of cultures. Similarities in ochre practices between cultures has been noted (Wreschner 1980: 631), comparisons of the diversity of its referential framework have been discussed (Hovers et al 2003: 510), and inferences drawn regarding the derivation of one culture from another (Tankersley et al 1995: 193).


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archaeology North America burials mortuary rituals ochre ocher prehistory archaic Neolithic




Title: A Shroud of Ochre