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A quest for color: how ancient humans made enduring natural dyes

Few non-fiction books turn out to be so magical and brave as to surpass a fiction reader’s expectations. Claude Lévi-Strauss Tristes Tropiques, a breakthrough memoir on the French anthropologist’s whereabouts among Brazilian tribes while Europe was heading towards World War II, shocked unprepared critics and readers for its modernity when it was first published in 1955.

Claude Lévi-Strauss in Amazonia in Brazil circa 1936

After his years in Brazil and the war, Lévi-Strauss resumed his academic work and buried his field notes deep in a drawer meant to be forgotten. He struggled with the nature and tone of a voyage that had manifested reality and time-warping qualities, an anthropological adventure but also a deep search of Europe’s conscience when confronted with the author’s readings and experiences in other civilizations. And, in the writer’s and reader’s conscience, a Western inheritance: the quest for chimeric Eldorado’s by traveling westwards.

Travel and travelers

Tristes Tropiques is, among other things, the first modern travelogue, a first in a first-person narrative that precedes the boundaries-breaking New Journalism movement from the 60s and 70s. The book is also filled with first-person notes, drawings and pictures by the author himself, most of which were taken when he was the only person from the outside world; it could have appeared as a very engaging, carefully researched and conscientiously written blog or substack. And, as only a few writers and essayists have accomplished, Lévi-Strauss gets us from paragraph one:

“TRAVEL and travelers are two things I loathe and yet here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions. But at least I’ve taken a long while to make up my mind to it: fifteen years have passed since I left Brazil for the last time and often, during those years, I’ve planned to write this book, but I’ve always been held back by a sort of shame and disgust. So much would have to be said that has no possible interest: insipid details, incidents of no significance. Anthropology is a profession in which adventure plays no part; merely one of its bondages, it represents no more than a dead weight of weeks or months wasted en route; hours spent in idleness when one’s informant has given one the slip; hunger, exhaustion, illness as like as not; and those thousand and one routine duties which eat up most of our days to no purpose and reduce our perilous existence in the virgin forest to a simulacrum of military service. . . . That the object of our studies should be attainable only by continual struggle and vain expenditures does not mean that we should set any store by what we should rather consider as the negative aspect of our profession.”

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 1955

We know we are signing up for irony, wit, and a subtle transfer of knowledge, and not for a bigger-than-life rant on somebody’s achievements. The idea behind this engaging compendium of anthropology, sociology, geology, history, music, literature, and much more is to find the clues of how humans build their culture and make sense of the world surrounding them, finding linguistic and behavioral clues that groups share with each other. Lévi-Straus was the main figure behind this academic approach, known as structuralism. But interpreting the reality of human culture through “structural anthropology” isn’t a hard science:

“The paradox is irresoluble: the less one culture communicates with another, the less likely they are to be corrupted, one by the other; but, on the other hand, the less likely it is, in such conditions, that the respective emissaries of these cultures will be able to seize the richness and significance of their diversity. The alternative is inescapable: either I am a traveler in ancient times, and faced with a prodigious spectacle which would be almost entirely unintelligible to me and might, indeed, provoke me to mockery or disgust; or I am a traveler of my own day, hastening in search of a vanished reality. In either case I am the loser…for today, as I go groaning among the shadows, I miss, inevitably, the spectacle that is now taking shape.”

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 1955

The universality of our fascination for color

Few things can talk about the human experience, such as the way we talk and name things physical and abstract. One of them is art, from the use of pigments to the use of ceremonial patterns as body painting, pottery, jewelry and other forms of expression. Engaged as a fellow human participant instead of detaching himself from the observed native groups, young Lévi-Strauss drew the shapes and took notes of the colors and pigments used by the different groups he encountered: the Caduveo (or Guaycuru), Kingang (or Aweikoma), Bororó, Nambikwara and Tupi-Kawahib. This is the chromatic experience of the Nambikwara back when Claude Lévi-Strauss lived among them:

“These preferences are perfectly comprehensible. When the Natives make their own pearls, and do it by hand, they set the highest value upon those which involve the most, and the most skilled, work: the smallest, that is to say. As raw material, they use the black rind of the palm nut and milky, mother-o pearly shells from the riverbed; they enjoy playing off the one against the other. Like everyone else, they like best what they already know: I should be most successful, therefore, with my blacks and my whites. Red and yellow often fell, for the Natives, into one and the same category: such is the result of using urucu dyes which vary, according to the quality of the seeds and the degree of their development, between vermilion and a yellowy-orange, red predominates, none the less, by reason of an intensity which certain seeds and certain feathers have long made familiar to the Natives. As for blue and green, these are comparatively cold colors, illustrated in Nature by short-lived vegetable substances; hence the Natives in difference towards them and, what is more, the indifference of their
language to nuances of blue, which is seen rather as a department of black, in some regions, and of green, in others.”

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 1955

“My needles had to be large enough to admit a good stout thread, yet not so large as to prevent the threading of tiny pearls. The thread itself had to be strong in color, preferably red (the Natives dye theirs with urucu), and made up with a good firm twist to give it a look of hand-made craftsmanship. Generally speaking, I was wary of junk jewelry and gewgaws; the Bororo had taught me a profound respect for native techniques. Life in the bush soon shows up any shortcomings of quality; and if I was not to lose face, paradoxical as this may seem, I had to offer the natives the finest-quality steels, glass colored through and through, and thread worthy of the Queen of England’s saddle-maker.”

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 1955

Our very, very old passion for ochre (and our mastery using it)

Pigments in prehistoric Eurasia came from similar sources, although birds’ feathers lose some of their bright, colorful, and shiny colorations far from the Equator. Colors also carry a strong cultural significance. To Mesoamerican civilizations, the intriguing behavior and radiant colors of the quetzal, a small bird from Southern Mexico and Central America, is so intermingled with the region’s mythology that inspired the mighty Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, who wears a red mask like a duck’s beak concealing long, canine teeth.

Related to the forces of wind, the influence of Venus and the Sun, to craftsmanship and knowledge, Quetzalcoatl (from quetzalli, referred to the bird quetzal and also “plumage” in general, and cohuātl “snake”) was also the patron god of the rest of the Aztec pantheon, as well as god of the cardinal directions, each represented by a color: black (north), red (east), blue (south), and white (west).

Visit also the photo gallery on our visit to color harvester Rebecca Burgess: click here.

Paleolithic findings in Eurasia and Africa have found evidence of using many pigments, like shards of ochre or bars of mineral composition, working as “crayons” or rudimentary pencils, usually moistened in water before use. Ochre is already found in humans’ remote past. There’s evidence of this color in the Lower Paleolithic, used as a powder associated with burials, perhaps as a reddish color associated with the blood and spirit of the deceased.

Ochre powder found on artifacts like cobble hammers and grindstones suggests elaborated, cultural ways of producing color for ceremonial purposes early on. Pigments were ground up into powder, then mixed with a binder for the color’s adherence to the material, and sometimes an extender to increase the volume.

The ancient binders we lost

Cave and body artists perfected colors and the Upper Paleolithic represents a giant leap forward in human art, as seen in the sophisticated cave art of Lascaux (Montignac, France) or Altamira (Santillana del Mar, Spain), among others. In Lascaux, there are red and yellow, oxide ochres, manganese oxide browns, blacks, and calcite white. The artists of Altamira used a similar Stone Age palette, with red hematite (iron oxide) as the dominant chromatism.

Archaeological findings reveal that human groups developed a wide range of pigments in the Middle Paleolithic around 40,000 years ago, heating mineral, vegetal, or animal substances to create colors through chemical reactions, producing vibrant colors thanks to chemical reactions in the preparation.

Paintings found in other parts of the world use similar techniques. A series of Pecos Indian rock paintings from 5,000 years ago used natural minerals, ores and soil deposits to produce the pigments; however, archaeologists haven’t deciphered how the pigment was stuck to the rock: the binder used is unknown to us.

Findings around the world show the use of basic pigments made of minerals with cooked, plant and animal-derived bindings: hematite (iron oxide) to make red color out of mineral ochre; limonite, hydrated iron oxide (hydroxide) for yellow; limestone, calcite or crushed shells and mineral calcium carbonate for white (a process still used for house cladding using limestone derivatives); manganite, a mineral form of manganese oxide-hydroxide for a variety of browns; and charcoal for black.

An old Egyptian formula

Binders were crucial to make durable imprints in all sorts of surfaces such as rock, leather, clothing, tools, and body painting. However, despite its timeless, earthy beauty and subtle range, the Paleolithic color palette lacked blue and green, which was only achievable by using temporary plants and bird feathers.

Blue was the most difficult color to obtain for Old World civilizations in their transition from the first agrarian settlements of the Neolithic to more populated and organized settlements. Blue was obtained from powdered azurite (copper carbonate) or the mineral lazurite, a very rare finding not readily available.

Blue was finally produced in large quantities once different ancient civilizations realized they could extract it from a plant, Indigofera tinctoria (and related species). The first evidence of the plant being cultivated in large quantities to make blue indigo comes from the Andes in Huaca Prieta (now Peru). Indigo was cultivated in Antiquity in East Asia, Egypt, India, and Bangladesh.

Greeks and Romans favored blue indigo in clothes and credited its origin to India. From there, according to Pliny the Elder, the plants and color made it to the Mediterranean in small amounts thanks to the commercial interchanges of the Silk Roads, which expanded its magic throughout Eurasia and Northern Africa. Centuries later, once Europeans had colonized the Caribbean and North America, indigofera plantations to produce blue indigo made fortunes and propelled the slave trade.

A more glassy blue was sourced from azurite, a mineral made of copper carbonate. Egyptians popularized the extraction formula, which later became a crucial pigment for Europeans in the Middle Ages: the Renaissance would only have achieved its level of refinement with this old Egyptian formula.

The oldest plant-derived red (so far)

Red dyes in different shades came from madder plants (Rubia tinctorum), a plant with yellow flowers whose roots have a red pigment that can be extracted and used as a very stable dye, as did ancient Indians, Vikings, or Egyptians. A more intense red had a mineral source, cinnabar, a stone found in alkaline hot springs and volcanic areas, which became an essential source of color for painters from the 8th century onwards, who called it vermilion.

Archeologists recently discovered what is the first red paint made from plants so far. About 15,000 years ago, Eastern Mediterranean hurter-gatherers extracted the cooked formula from roots of Rubiaceae plants (the aforementioned madder family), according to a research published Wednesday published in PLOS One. Brian Handwerk explains the finding in Smithsonian Magazine:

“The creators of this 15,000-year-old paint were part of the Natufian culture. They were the first hunter-gatherers to start settling down to more sedentary lifestyles across the Levant, in what is now Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories. They utilized wild plants for much more than food, including processing them to make pigment before domesticating them. The ornamental use of these organic dyes may be an example of a growing need for expression as human societies gradually shifted over the centuries.”

Archaeologists Find the First Red Paint Made From Plants, Smithsonian Magazine, October 25, 2023

The earliest examples of plant-based red pigment date from 6,000 years ago.


Despite the availability of new analysis techniques to scan and perform spectroscopies (a chemical study observing how a substance scatters light), it’s very difficult to find ancient pigments used by our ancestors due to the fragility of pigments, especially when their original source was organic (plants, animals).

We may have lost, for example, evidence of how some of this knowledge was transmitted to us by the first art performers in places like Eurasia: Neanderthals and Denisovans predating our species in the region. We know that the oldest cave art, found in a cave in Spain and dating from 64,000 years ago, was made by Neanderthals.

By reconnecting with the original colors that transformed the beliefs of our species, we could relearn to appreciate the nuances and vibrancy of colors that age well, overcoming the mediocre, uniform synthetic dyes that fall apart ungraciously (and some of which cause environmental and health hazards). In our era of abundance, a mere piece of cloth dyed with blue indigo may bring emotion to our senses.

“The order and harmony of the Western world, its most famous achievement, and a laboratory in which structures of a complexity as yet unknown are being fashioned, demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe. The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind.”

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 1955