Early cave painting was the product of blood, sweat and milk
49,000 years ago, a very dedicated artist in South Africa painted a red… smudge on a cave wall. Perhaps the lack of cultural context has stolen something from the visual impact of the piece at this point, but looking very closely at the paint this artist used tells this wasn’t just a child’s finger-painting. The paint was clearly mixed, not just with red ochre, but also with some form of bovine milk, an ingredient that was thought to be completely unavailable at the time.
While obtaining bovine milk from a cow is commonplace today, South Africans were not even on the verge of raising domesticated cows 49,000 years ago. Modern cows are an agrarian innovation from 10,500 years ago, leaving this ancient artist with no clear source of milk to work with. Analysis of the proteins and peptides in the paint were of the bovid persuasian though, leaving only wilder sources like elands, kudu, buffalo, duikers or bushbucks.
Assuming a lactating cow could be found, they weren’t about to allow themselves to be milked for the sake of a painting. Instead, they were likely hunted while separated from their herd, and the milk was collected as a sort of by-product of a successful kill. The supply would therefore be unpredictable at best, adding a sense of scarcity to these painting materials. This may have added some degree of ritualized significance to the resulting art, adding critical context beyond the resulting image preserved today.
Source: In South Africa, People Painted with Cow Milk Long Before They Domesticated Cattle by Marissa Fessenden, Smithsonian Smart News