Known scientifically as hematite, ochre is a reddish iron-containing rock that was used as a coloring substance made by grinding the stone into a powder that when mixed with fat or water formed a paste. Homo erectus had already begun to work with ochre, thus securing it as a key, nonfunctional element in human life.
Ochre was a great universal of all First Societies. The Blackfeet of the American Plains referred to it as nitsisaan or “real paint” and profusely daubed it on their ceremonial garments. Its color was thought to represent the sun and the energy that permeates all things, making a person rubbed with it appear holy and powerful. Its redness and brilliance signaled supernatural potency overlapping with a range of cosmological concepts revolving around rain, fertility, hunting, and death. The nineteen-century painter George Catlin painted the Sioux worshipping at a red boulder in the open grasslands of the Great Plains.
|George Catlin, Sioux Worshiping at the Red Boulders, 1837—1839|
Ceremonial uses of ochre still exist today, such as among the Maasai in Kenya during certain initiation rituals, by Amazon tribes and by Aboriginal people in Australia.
The !Kung, who live in the Kalahari desert of Botswana and who are among the oldest of the surviving First Society people in the world, use the pigment in rituals dealing with a woman’s first menstruation. A female initiate, on emergence from seclusion, would present the women of her kin group with lumps of ochre for decorating their faces and cloaks and also for adorning the young men to protect them when out hunting.