Saï Island in Sudan – Earliest Site with Evidence of Ochre Use by Modern humans

Chert pebble with ochre residue from Sai Island, Sudan. (Source: Illustration by Van Peer, et al.

Saï Island, in Sudan, is located in the Nubian region of the Nile River, and is the very earliest site with evidence of ochre use by modern humans. It is the largest island on the Nile River, and was occupied intermittently by people throughout the Paleolithic. The island is rich in history, and today we will focus on the color impact of Saï island in the history of the world.

Found on the island, there are several archaeological layers dating from about 180,000 to 200,000 years ago. Excavation there has yielded large quantities of red and yellow ochre. While red is almost always the dominant color at early human sites, the inhabitants of Saï Island seem to have preferred yellow pigment. The significant use of yellow ochre there indicates strong cultural choices and the use of new manipulation techniques to change colors, call it chemistry, which could have been heating or something else. Thus, Saï Island is known for being the site of the earliest ochre-processing kit in the world; on the site were found sandstone mortars, a rectangular sandstone slab with a depression carefully hollowed out in its center. The slab appears to have been a grinding stone, with evidence of ochre powder within the depression. Two small pieces of chert stone with fragments of ochre still attached were found nearby. The pieces of chert were used to crush the ochre into a fine powder on the slab, like an early mortar and pestle. These were dated to about ca 180,000 years ago. This makes Saï island an important site to understand the initial emergence of modern human behavior in the world, and thus the start of colors, and new techniques of manipulations of ochre.

To learn more, check out Van Peer et al. J. of Human Evolution 45, 187 (2003) and Fulcher et al., J. of Archaeological Sci. Rep. 33, 102550 (2020).

2 thoughts on “Saï Island in Sudan – Earliest Site with Evidence of Ochre Use by Modern humans

  1. This is great information. I’ve been reading more about ochre used in ancient times in multiple societies because of Dr. Marie Charles’ research in her ongoing project of finding the cultural, linguistic, and artifact continuity between various African cultures being an antecedent in ancient Europe from several millennia ago. It was fascinating learning about the uses and some of the symbolism of ochre.


    1. Interesting, I should check out Dr. Marie Charles’ work. A great work on linguistics of African languages and cultural links to Europe is the work by the great Professor Theophile Obenga, and Kalala Nioussere Omotunde.

      Liked by 1 person

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