Humankind's Origins

Excerpts from Cities of Dreams

Stan Gooch

Chapter TWO
Red Ochre

Investigations of paleolithic, mesolithic and neolithic tombs throughout the world, in every climate and continent, reveal striking similarities in the funerary habits of man. Of all their affinities none are more commonly encountered than the custom of including red pigments with the body. This took the form of lumps of red stone scattered about the grave or the liberal coating of the deceased with the ground powder of some red mineral substance. In some cases the dead were completely submerged in a mass of red ochre. So numerous are the references to these ochre interments that pages could be filled merely by quoting their provenance… Many prehistorians have refrained from attaching any interpretation to this employment of red ochre.

The above are the words of Adrian Boshier and Peter Beaumont — but the emphasis is mine — writing in the journal Optima in 1972. Already this brief quotation, apart from the actual mysteries it begins to reveal, at once brings out points which we shall be emphasising again and again in the present book. First, we have the observation that certain, clearly identifiable practices are found world-wide among all forms of early man (‘in every climate and continent’) — practices which are not just vaguely similar but ‘strikingly similar’. Second, we have the observation that academics and researchers are clearly reluctant to discuss this circumstance and its implications. (We noted already a similar reluctance on the part of those concerned to discuss the disappearance of Cro-Magnon man.)

What, however, is the precise context in which Boshier and Beaumont are writing? The context is that of numerous large-scale prehistoric mines and quarries recently discovered in various parts of southern Africa. The most ancient of these mines so far found is 100,000 years old. Several others are dated variously 45,000, 40,000 and 35,000 BP (Before Present — see Chapter 3).

Yet mines? Large-scale mines? One hundred thousand years old? Surely we are speaking here of hollows or depressions in the earth’s surface, which are possibly even accidental? No, we are very much not. 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.

In all cases, however, these excavations had been painstakingly refilled when the site was abandoned. (Boshier later discovered why, for the modern Swazi today still work such mines, usually in secret. The in-fill, the Swazi say, is required to placate the Earth spirits, especially the great plumed serpent — to whom in any case daily offerings of meal, tobacco and water must be made.)

Is it any wonder that science and orthodoxy shun these findings, so clearly threatening, as they do, the complete destruction of currently held orthodox views of man and his evolution? For the orthodox view is that the release of manpower for community tasks other than those of basic food-gathering and survival occurred for the first time only a few thousand years ago, in south-east Europe, in the context of the first developments of agriculture and animal husbandry. Mining, specifically, is considered to have begun around 5000 BC.

Yet here in Africa, between 40-100,000 years ago, we find no less than a massive investment of manpower resources in a continuous operation (through thousands of generations of mankind) to obtain a substance of zero food value, of no discernible economic value (since the ore was not smelted into iron) and, in fact of no practical use whatsoever. We must not overlook, incidentally, the mining skills involved here; and the fact that while in some cases the red ochre lay exposed on the surface, in other cases it lay underground. How were the ancient miners aware of its existence? On this particular mystery we may be able to throw light.

Back, however, to the use of red ochre in funeral rites.

H.B.S. Cooke and his associates report on the oldest known human burial so far, from the Lebombo Mountains of South Africa. This is perhaps as much as 80,000 years old, but certainly not less than 46,000 years. The burial is that of a small boy, interred with a sea-shell pendant — and in red ochre. These same archaeologists, incidentally, report the finding of notched bones from levels at least 35,000 years old (at Border Cave in Natal) which offer clear evidence that these early men knew how to count.

Far away from Africa, at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southern France, a man was buried 45,000 years ago, also packed in red ochre. In Wales, from a site dated 35-25,000 years BP, we have ‘the Red Lady of Paviland’. ‘The bones [of this interment] were embedded in ruddle, a red micaceous iron ore, which has coloured the surrounding earth for half a yard around. The body must have been enveloped and completely buried up in this material, and the bones and the associated objects… are still encrusted with it.'

P.L. Kirk reports on a large number of prehistoric Australian aboriginal burials at lakeland sites: ‘At Lake Mungo… the complete skeleton of an adult male… Careful stratigraphic studies suggest that this skeleton, Mungo III, was laid in its shallow grave 28-30,000 years ago: pink staining of the soil around the skeleton indicates also that red ochre had been sprinkled over the body.’ The Aborigines of the Torres Straits islands, who formerly practised the actual mummification of corpses, likewise employed red ochre in their burials.

From Czechoslovakia comes the ‘Fox Lady’ of Doini Vestonice, a burial dated 23,000 B.P:

She had been given an elaborate burial inside one of the huts, laid in a prepared hollow on the left side in a contracted position… Body and head were covered with red ochre and protected by two shoulder-blades of mammoth, one of which had a network of irregular lines incised on its surface. With the woman were placed her stone tools, and close to her left hand the paws and tail of an arctic fox, with the teeth in her other hand.

Breuil and Lantier describe a Bavarian burial, 20,000 years old. ‘The skeleton of a thirty-year-old man was laid in a burial site… entirely surrounded by a pile of mammoth tusks and the whole body nearly submerged in a mass of red ochre.’

The Red Indians who came to meet their first European visitors were painted red with ochre not (probably) so much for combat purposes, as in honour of these gods who had come among them: so, of course, we refer to these brown peoples as ‘Red’. These same Indians placed their dead on platforms high up in the trees, after the corpses had been liberally covered with red ochre. This was obviously a very ancient practice, though equally clearly one which left no fossil traces for later discovery.

Figure 1

On a different tack now, from the Dordogne in France comes a flat bone on which are carved what appear to be the phases of the Moon over a time period (Marshack). The pattern of the markings on the bone possibly also shows the path of the Moon in the sky relative to the position of the observer (see Figure 1). This artefact is dated 27,000 BP. Marshack also considered a host of other somewhat younger incised and notched bones from Europe (and one from Egypt).

These, he proposes, again log aspects of the Moon’s intervals, and possibly also menstruation and pregnancy records. (Similar notched bone and wooden artefacts, incidentally, this time definitely connected with numerical aspects of lunar intervals, were in use in modern times among North American Indians, Australian Aborigines and on the Nicobar Islands off Thailand.) In some cases the bones had been rubbed with red ochre, so that the notches retain the substance. Here, then, is clear evidence of the religious or holy nature of these artefacts — and a first link too between the Moon and red ochre. It should be noted here that the deliberate notching or scratching of bone in Europe, together with the consecrational and perhaps also fixing use of red ochre, does in fact date back some 30-40,000 years.

Paleolithic engraved bone plaque, 27,000 B.P., possibly recording phases of the Moon over a time period.

A remarkable and important feature of the total story of red ochre is that its influence has never slackened throughout the whole period under discussion — from its beginnings with Neanderthal man 100,000 years ago (or earlier) right up to the present day; and in both primitive and advanced societies, as we see shortly. Raymond Dart comments:

Red ochre has a fantastic cultural evolutionary history beginning with Mousterian burial ritual and extending through its manifold late paleolithic artistic, religious, trading and bartering applications. By means of its dominating agency in the diffusion of the myths, rites and mysteries of ancient metallurgy and alchemy, it has played parts of such continuity and expanding diversity as to have rendered it unique amongst all minerals in moulding mankind’s existence then and today.

John Greenway writes: ‘Why did this material in almost every religion since Neanderthal man invented that institution, become the most spiritually rich and magical of all substances… There is no end to the myriad uses of ochre.’ Greenway also has the following dramatic report 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 punishments involved do include the death penalty — but that is not the worst. Far worse is when the Red Ochre Men destroy the offender’s soul, so that it is of little consequence if he goes on living physically. Sometimes death is readily accepted by the offender as the price for leaving his or her soul intact.

Aside from such highly secret matters, red ochre is, in any case, the most important decorative substance in use among Aborigines today in all tribal ceremony, whether that be directly religious or of the more entertaining variety. In the initial private ceremony of a boy’s initiation into manhood and the religious mysteries, for example — ceremony that in all lasts almost continuously from age 14-25 — the youngster is painted all over with red ochre. He must stay away from camp and sleep by himself till the ochre wears off, and meanwhile only come to drink at the waterhole at night. New mothers also are decorated with ochre and must live in the special women’s camp, as must also menstruating women and new widows. Some weeks after the birth the new father is similarly painted with ochre.

On these various occasions actual blood is also used in parallel with ochre, as it likewise is in Africa, and we know, in fact, from a variety of sources that red ochre represents blood (but whose?). One of the sources of actual blood is from circumcision of males, and from the ghastly sub-incision of the penis, which is slit open underneath from base to tip. The symbolic significance of this sub-incision is important for our general argument, and along with allied matters will concern us again later.

The influence of red ochre in historical times is not just confined to tribespeople. For example, the funeral chambers of the Chinese Shang Emperors and other aristocrats, around 1500 BC, were painted red — as were the burial tombs of Japanese, Etruscan, Greek and Roman rulers. (Here, we note, is a practice spanning two entire continents, Orient and Occident.) Homeric classical Greece, therefore, also bears the imprint of Neanderthal. Not just that, but the Pope himself is buried in a red shroud to this day. Not bad achievements for allegedly shambling and even allegedly speechless(!) Neanderthal man. Greenway, himself a Catholic, considers that the Easter ashes of Catholicism, the dab of ash on the forehead, also represent red ochre, and I agree with him. But there is far more to it all than that.

A word in passing here about alchemy. Among the various notions pursued by alchemists was that of a red powder which could turn base and leaden metals into gold. It seems clear that what we have here is a distorted and misunderstood memory of the powers of red ochre. Much else in alchemy, Gnosticism, Catharism, Freemasonry and so forth also bears examination in this and related contexts. We must realise, however, that we are seldom if ever dealing with direct memories: but rather with memories of memories of memories.

Their true source and origin has been totally forgotten, and their form, like that of tortured rocks, is much distorted. Lastly here, we can note that in ancient Greece, as among African tribes today (who call it ‘the essence of life’), red ochre was/is considered to have genuine medicinal properties. It is said to stop bleeding and haemorrhaging, clear blood-shot and pus-ridden eyes, cure snake bite, and correct urinary and other internal troubles. Whether such is the case or not, the belief in the powers of red ochre is clear.

So what, then, does red ochre really represent?

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.)

Yet still and all, even supposing the foregoing does indeed represent the thoughts and views of original Neanderthal in this connection, what actual events might have drawn him to red ochre in the first place? Do we not want, in fact demand, some very powerful reasons indeed — and indeed again, hard, objective reasons, not just fantasies or ideas — as to how and why red ochre could become a bedrock of a religion that not only totally galvanised the energies of early man for something like 100,000 years, but that then went on to fundamentally shape our own modern world — a score on which we have not yet fired even our opening salvos? Why, in short, did these ideas take hold with such ferocity? We turn now to some of the hard evidence.

Haematite, a Greek word meaning bloodstone, the official name for red ochre or red oxide of iron, is chemically Fe203. This chemical substance is frequently produced by the weathering of magnetite, Fe304. That is to say, when magnetite is exposed to the atmosphere at the earth’s surface, it turns into haematite. Digging down through the haematite one comes upon magnetite, and it is clear that the one substance turns into the other. In his excavating of red ochre Neanderthal could not have failed to notice this phenomenon.

As it happens, however, magnetite is highly magnetic. It is what is called in historical times the lodestone (i.e. the ‘leading stone’). If a small sliver of magnetite is floated on the surface tension of water, the sliver swings round until it points to magnetic north. Might it not well be that Neanderthal, accidentally or otherwise, discovered this magical property of magnetite?

There is good circumstantial evidence to suggest that indeed he did — this will later involve us in a detailed consideration of Neanderthal’s view of the North. Let us imagine just in passing something Neanderthal might have imagined — that the North was the home of a Great Spirit. The Spirit often stirred, sending mankind little icy reminders of its powers; and then sometimes also, in real anger, its huge frozen hands to grip and squeeze the whole world. In those times the Sun grew weak and pale, and was sick unto death — while the Moon, however, rode on unchanged.

For it was She who summoned the cold, her own elemental force, She who drew the ice back and forth across the land as easily as She drew back and forth the great waters. Suppose now that, in addition to that possible mental scenario, Neanderthal also happened upon the lodestone which (floating on water) always pointed North no matter how far you travelled into the pitiless, inhospitable arctic, where no human being could in fact live. We would begin to have some very powerful lines of reasoning here — one might almost say, lines of force.

But instead of simply speculating, let us rather look here at some recent archaeological discoveries in Central America. Thanks to these, we now know that the Olmec Indians of Central America were using compasses — a sliver or small bar of magnetite on a piece of cork or wood, floating in a bowl of water — around 3000 years ago; and therefore at least 1000 years before their reported use by the Chinese, who are usually considered to have invented the compass.

This is not at all to say, of course, that the Olmecs (or the Chinese, for that matter) only discovered the magnetite compass 3000 years ago — they could have had it far longer — only that we know they had the use of it at that point. One of the reasons we know this is because Olmec ceremonial centres were laid out to point a few degrees west of true north i.e. precisely to magnetic north. The specifically religious context here is, of course, of great interest to us.

The purely factual aspects of this particular line of enquiry do not necessarily stop there. Recent investigations of many directionally-navigating and homing creatures, ranging from sea-bacteria to the homing pigeon, have shown that these various animals possess tiny clusters of magnetite in the head, by which agency they both sense, and use for directional purposes, the Earth’s magnetic field. Experimentally, a homing pigeon with a tiny bar magnet strapped to its head ceases to be able to navigate successfully. In nature, the home pigeon flying across a deposit of magnetite, haematite or other iron oxide veers about in sudden confusion, until it escapes the ore’s local magnetic field.

Is it perhaps possible that Neanderthal man also possessed magnetite clusters within the brain, while Cro-Magnon — like all — or like most of ourselves — did not? A nomadic species, such as Neanderthal apparently was, would certainly have found that endowment useful. Might such an endowment, if present, then also have enabled him to sense slight local magnetic fields — and hence locate not just underground deposits of magnetite/haematite, but also for instance running underground water, which likewise creates a tell-tale magnetic field at the surface?

What we are discussing here, of course, is the ability to dowse, one which a few rare individuals do possess today. However, those inclined to be sceptical of such matters may nevertheless be impressed by a large Olmec carving in basalt of a turtle head — one of the animals known to possess the magnetite clusters. The basalt is itself rich in naturally magnetic iron, and the carving is made in such a way that the lines of magnetic force in it run to a point at the snout.

The suggestion that this ancestor of ours — and, incidentally, as of very recently, orthodoxy does accept the probability of interbreeding between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon — possessed an ability to sense at least some types of local magnetic-field disturbance would also offer one possible explanation of the nature of the underground ‘plumed serpent’ feared in Swazi folklore. But whether it is the explanation or not, the plumed serpent will prove to be another world-wide article of belief, found from Africa to China, to South America, to Australia, to Europe.

Here is a convenient moment to make a major emphasis. This is that the ideas and events discussed in this chapter are (a) a world-wide phenomenon and (b) have, therefore, persisted as ideas though vast periods of time. This second point requires further elucidation, and brings us on to more precise considerations of chronology and geography, the subject of the next chapter. The two points together, however, also beg another question. For there is an assumption here that similar ideas found in different parts of the world can only have arrived there through some process of dissemination. But are there any alternatives to dissemination as an explanation?

One possible explanation for similar ideas arising independently in geographically widely-separated parts of the globe is the notion of parallel evolution. It can well be argued that all human communities will and do tend to pass through similar stages in the process of evolving a complex society — and, in any case, do possess a common biology, and so common biological imperatives. Sometimes, therefore, similar ideas can arise merely coincidentally.

Certainly, one could make some such attempt at explanation in respect of, say, a world-wide preoccupation with menstruation. All peoples could and in fact would quite independently observe, for example, that pregnant women do not menstruate; that young girls do not become mothers until such time as menstruation begins; a connection between the Moon’s phases and both menstruation and the duration of pregnancy (subjects we shall discuss in detail later), and so on: and then from all these, to them, obviously important matters, involving of course the very existence and continuation of the tribe, spin out some roughly parallel programmes of religious explanation and observance.

Nevertheless, this initially promising and possible line of argument becomes increasingly difficult to defend as we turn to ever finer and more specific cultural detail, and as the mass of such detail relentlessly grows. Quite soon in fact the sheer weight of ‘coincidence’ breaks the back of any argument of parallel evolution. We are then left with the only other explanation possible: that one single, central and totally authoritative source produced the widely dispersed practices and knowledge involved.

Stan Gooch, 1995

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