red ochre (
14 Nov 1995 06:57:10 GMT

One of the most fascinating and equally understudied aspects is
one of the most pervasive and perhaps one of the oldest features in
human culture's treatment of the dead - i.e., the use of red ochre. This
widespread tradition crosses Asia,Europe, Australia, Africa, and North
and South America. We first encounter this accompaniment with the dead
apparently as far back as 100,000 years in European Neanderthal cave
burial rites. From then and there ochre seems to have spread with human
population migrations across land and time. Such widespread practice
reflects the considerable antiquity and its implications.
In the following archaic and recent primitive cultures it has
thus been
inferred and suggested by both archaeological and ethnographic insights
that ochre has some spiritual or eschatological relationship with the
deceased and the phenomenom centered around blood and its life and death
attributes. Some societies placed their dead onto a bed of ochre whereas
other sprinkled the sacred powder blanketing over the corspe. The
practice of ochre usage is not merely isolated to hunter-gatherer
cultures but also prevalent in many graves in Egyptian, Near Eastern,
and Asian civilizations as well. In North America, Olmec, Mayan, and
Aztecan burials contain red and yellow ochre. Curiously, the practice
was not limited to an elite class but equally found in the graves of
seemingly lesser stature-some of these burials had no other
accompaniments. (note:many ochre graves in archaic burials have rich
Interestingly, there have been found a wealth of similar burial
patterns in the so-called "shellmound or shellheap" cultures including
Pacific and Atlantic Coastal Native American villages and some in the
European littoral zone as well. For example, in the San Francisco Bay
Area and inland Delta region of Central California;the so-called
"Poverty Point Culture" of the Bayou Macon in the Mississippi Delta; and
along the Atlantic Seaboard from Maine to Newfoundland with a culture
referred as the "Red Paint People" or more recently the "Maritime
Archaic" was a longstanding custom of ochre-burials. From these three
separate but remarkably similar ecological/environmental niches came
societies that mastered seafaring, large fish and sea mammals, and
particularly enjoyed the plentiful mollusks for food and for personal
adornment in the form of shell jewelry.It is important to note the often
beautiful and skillful craftsmanship of their fishing implements and
hunting/fishing charms. Attesting to the aesthetics and functionality,
in each of the regions many of these were often finely decorated with
geometric incised marks and polished - it would be difficult for
sometimes even the professional to distinguish a specimen from one area
to another. These artifacts, either made from bone, shell, or stone,
often follow their owners into the afterlife. In many occasions, the
artifacts too, are purposely encrusted or painted with ochre in the
I would like to further mention my primary focus besides ochre,
that is
the occurrence of charmstones, or, as they call them in the Eastern
United States, "plummets." Plummets have a somewhat curious and
associated connection with ochre. Although certainly not a constant
companion, there is a rather large commonality between the two.
Especially in the three geographic regions mentioned above. Actually,
with more information coming in to me all the time, sites in South
America, Denmark, Canada, and Alaska also share the ochre, plummet,
maritime tradition... There is, it seems, some sort of psychological
association conducive to ecological or environmental dynamics, that is,
unless one invokes the "d" word (diffusion). That poses an altogether
more complicated hypothesis than we have time for tonight, but worth
contemplating nonetheless!
So my friends, cutting this to an abrupt close, I urge those
to post further comments and if you're interested in engaging me on a
personal note please e-mail me at your leisure. I do have a fine
bibliography related to the above subject(s) and quite a photographic
display as well for those scholarly types with like interests. Until
then, so long...