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An ideology of blood at the root of symbolic culture: African hunter-gatherer perspectives

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Behaviourally, the only thing that stands out about our African speciation is the abundance of red ochre, an earth pigment. Although there are sound theoretical reasons for supposing that much of it is the residue of skin-changing ritual performance, archaeologists have been very cautious interpreting this record. Social anthropology, lacking interest in 'origins' debates, has never produced a cross-cultural review of African hunter-gatherer ritual use of red substances (ochre, plant pigments, blood). Ian Watts presents an initial attempt to fill this gap, prioritizing indigenous statements. Significant commonalities are identified at both the level of ritual practise and symbolic meaning. As genetic divergences among the relevant populations are estimated to have arisen between 40,000 and 100,000 years ago, such commonalities should be viewed as of immense antiquity. On this basis, they further constrain our interpretation of red ochre use during our speciation.

 

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