Red iron oxide, ochre, characterises landscapes like the Namib Desert here and has fascinated people for over 100.000 years. They undertook long journeys to obtain this mythical substance. Biomimetic approaches can also provide new insights into anthropological contexts. I demonstrate this with the following hypothesis (Ref. 440):
Since time immemorial, vultures have competed with humans for the carcasses of animals and shared the habitat in this way. One of these vultures, the once widespread bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbaticus), has a habit of cleaning its polluted plumage and skin in puddles of water interspersed with red iron oxide, ochre. Why this behaviour? Primitive man may have tried to figure it out and might have discovered the advantages:
Red ochre, which has accompanied human rituals for over 100.000 years, is not just a red colour for decoration and a symbol of blood. As photochemical experiments show, ochre is active in sunlight and produces aggressive chemical products. These can kill viruses and bacteria and convert malodorous organic substances into volatile neutral carbon dioxide gas. In this way, ochre in sunlight can cleanse and sterilise the skin, promote health and well-being and make hunters odourless. Avoiding odours when hunting animals was a clear strategic advantage for nomadic meat hunters.
For this reason, and to protect themselves from disease, prehistoric people incorporated ochre into their rituals, especially those related to birth and death. They also wiped their hands with ochre on rocks, perhaps discovering the fascination of painting.