3 Native Paint Revealed: The everlasting power of red ochre

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.’1

The everlasting power of red ochre

Fig 11. Red ochre stone rubbed flat. Burke Museum.

The earliest known use of red ochre on the NW Coast is dated to around 5,000 years ago (Dr. R. Carlson, personal interview, 20122.) and was found in On Your Knees Cave on Prince of Wales Island in South East Alaska. Human remains and a bone tool were found in On Your Knees Cave in 1996 by professor of Earth Science, Dr. Timothy Heaton of the University of South Dakota3. The human remains have been dated at 9,730 and 9,880 BP (Before Present, a term used by archeologists and geologists which is set at January 1, 1950, the date at which nuclear activity altered the radioactivity levels on Earth.). The tool has been dated at 10,300 years BP. This is not to say that this is the earliest use of red ochre on the NW Coast, but rather the earliest we have found. There may be more places, possibly older, where red ochre was used that have been submerged due to rising sea levels or that have yet to be discovered on land. Archeologists are currently doing underwater research on village sites that were inundated by rising seas which has the potential to give us far more evidence of even earlier people.

Fig 12. Yellow ochre cake and powder. Personal collection.

Sometimes if there was no red ochre available natives substituted yellow ochre. Early humans learned that roasting yellow ocher causes it to turn red. Yellow ochre has a chemical formula of Fe2O3H2O, and is called hydrated iron oxide. When yellow ochre is roasted the hydrogen is driven out changing the formula to Fe2 O3, which alters it to iron oxide or red ochre.

In my research on the use of pigments throughout history and around the world it became apparent to me that the use of, and therefore the technical knowledge of how to manipulate red ochre to make paint, was passed down through millennia rather than new generations having to reinvent that particular wheel.  There seems to be some innate response in humans to grasp and conceptualize the immediate possibilities and symbolism of red ochre as even the most remote of cultures which have red ochre available use it as some form of colorant, particularly in funerary and ceremonial rituals.

“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 molding mankind’s existence then and today.”4  

Fig 13. Whalebone club pommel.

Complex human thought is demonstrated in finding the mineral pigment within the environment; it is often not visible on the surface, but has to be deliberately sought out using geologic and other strategies, then mined. (There are large red ochre mines all over the world, some of which date back to 40,00 years ago.) manipulate it to a usable state, and then to use it as a form of expression relevant to socio/political and sacred states. Natives of the NW Coast had a profound understanding of their environment which they communicated through generations along with the knowledge of how to manipulate their materials. They conceptualized the use of paint to create images and to personalize artifacts, to add specific meaning, visual interest and even a form of communication while creating an aesthetically pleasing artform. In northern formline work the long term use of particular colors (red, black, blue/green) in specific forms indicates a systematized set of rules that was deeply assimilated into and significant to the culture/s. It is a staggering statement of who these people were and are that everything traditional from housefronts to eating utensils bears iconography which can be “read”, and the same two to three colors of paint that have been in use for thousands of years (there is archeological evidence that consistent use of not only red and black date back +3,000 years, but green does as well.5) without deviation or influence by outside factors. According to Kenneth Ames in an article in Evolutionary Anthropology, “The defining elements of the historic style, including motifs, carving techniques, and organizational principles, are clearly present by the end of the Middle Pacific.”.6 The “Middle Pacific” is a period in the evolution of the NW Coast from 1,800 BC to AD 200–500.3;the use of red ochre on the NW Coast long predates this period by at least 3,000 years.


  1. Gooch, Stan. Mankind’s Origins, Excerpts from Cities of Dreams. AULIS Online, 1/4/2013. http://www.aulis.com/twothirds8.htm
  2. Carlson, Dr. Roy L. Personal communication 12/2012 Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC.
  3. Heaton, Timothy H., “ICE AGE PALEONTOLOGY OF SOUTHEAST ALASKA “  Merlot Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching. University of South Dakota © 2002 by Timothy H. Heaton
  4. Gooch, Stan. Mankind’s Origins, Excerpts from Cities of Dreams. AULIS Online, 1/4/2013. http://www.aulis.com/twothirds8.htm
  5. Carlson, Dr. Roy L. Personal communication 12/2012 Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC.
  6. Kenneth Ames, Evolutionary Anthropology 19, P. 30. http://www.web.pdx.edu/~amesk/pdfs/Evol_Anth_Ames.pdf

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