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What was the first color in history?

What was the first color in history?

The question of what was the first color in history is an interesting one that delves into the origins of human perception, language, and culture. Color is a fundamental part of how humans see and interpret the world, so understanding the earliest origins of color language and categorization can provide insight into the development of human society.

In examining this question, we first need to define what we mean by “color” and how different cultures have categorized the visible spectrum. We also need to explore evidence from anthropology, linguistics, and other fields to piece together clues about humanity’s earliest color distinctions. This evidence can come from studies of ancient texts and artifacts, investigations into the evolution of color vision, and analyses of how different languages divide and name the colors.

While there may be no definitive single answer, we can draw some reasonable conclusions about which colors seem most likely to have been named or classified first by our ancient ancestors. By better understanding humanity’s primordial color vocabulary, we gain perspective on the cognitive processes and cultural forces that shaped how we see and interpret color today.

The Science and Evolution of Human Color Vision

To begin unraveling what the first named color might have been, we should first understand some basics about human color perception from a scientific perspective.

Human color vision relies on specialized receptor cells in the retina called cones. There are three types of cones that respond preferentially to different wavelengths of light. According to the trichromatic theory, the interaction of signals from these three cone types enables us to perceive the full range of colors through mixing red, green, and blue stimuli:

Cone type Peak sensitivity wavelength
S cones (short) 420 nm – blue
M cones (medium) 530 nm – green
L cones (long) 560 nm – red

This three-cone system evolved in primate ancestors quite early, with some estimates dating it back 30-40 million years. Scientists have also observed similar trichromatic vision in many other species, suggesting it emerged independently through convergent evolution multiple times.

While human color perception relies on combining signals from three cone types, many mammals including most non-primate mammals are dichromats, meaning they only have two functional cone types. Their vision system combines input from short and middle/long wavelength sensitive cones. As a result, most mammals have limited color vision compared to humans, making fewer color distinctions.

Understanding the evolution of trichromatic color vision in human ancestry provides clues about when our ancestors may have first made color distinctions that became encoded into language. The capacity to perceive nuances between red, green, and blue wavelengths likely preceded and enabled more sophisticated color categorization.

Anthropological and Archaeological Evidence

Beyond vision science, we can look to evidence from anthropology and archeology to identify possible early uses of color by human societies. Although limited, these findings provide some hints about humanity’s early color classification.

One line of evidence comes from pigments and dyes preserved in ancient artifacts and rock paintings. Early humans used color for decoration, ritual, camouflage, and other purposes, suggesting they distinguished particular hues.

Analyzing the mineral composition of pigment remnants provides clues about when certain colors were utilized. For example:

– Red ochre pigments traced back to the Middle Stone Age in Africa over 250,000 years ago.

– Black manganese and charcoal pigments dating 30,000-70,000 years ago have been found in South Africa.

– White pigments made from chalk and limestone date back 28,000 years in Europe.

– Red and yellow ochre pigments from 20,000 years ago come from sites in Australia.

These mineral-based pigment finds indicate at least some color categories like black, white, red, and yellow were familiar to humans prior to the development of agriculture and more established civilizations.

Other early evidence comes from colored decorative shells and beads. Perforated seashells tinted orange and red date back over 100,000 years.
White and brown mollusk shell beads from around 40,000 years ago represent some of the earliest known jewelry.

While we can’t directly extrapolate from these artifacts to know the color names and distinctions used, they do suggest colors like red, yellow, black, white, and brown held meaning and value in these cultures.

Theories on Early Color Terms

Linguistic anthropology provides another lens for inferring humanity’s first color terms. Researchers have analyzed how cultures name colors and how color vocabulary evolves over time.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were debates around early color terminology between theorists like Gladstone, Geiger, and Magnus. Gladstone proposed a orderly sequence moving from black and white opposites to red, then names for other warm colors before cool colors like green and blue.

Geiger disputed this orderly progression, arguing different cultures develop color terms based on usefulness for their environment. Magnus viewed red as likely the first color named, given its importance and its distinction by dichromats.

Influential linguist Brent Berlin and psychologist Paul Kay proposed a more systematic model in their 1969 book Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Their research on color terms across cultures found:

– Cultures tend to gain basic color terms in a partially fixed order. First are words for white/black or light/dark, then red, then green/yellow, then blue.
– The first color named is never green or blue in any language studied.
– Languages have constraints on adding new basic color terms if a previously ordered term is lacking.

This model implies darker, warmer colors preceded cooler, lighter colors in early color vocabulary. Critics argue it overstates universality and that categorization is more flexible. But it provides a framework for how color naming may have originated and expanded.

Black, White and Red – The First Documented Colors

Tracing back through the documentary record, the earliest named colors that appear in ancient texts and sources are black, white, and red.

Evidence from Ancient Egypt shows distinctions made between black (km) and white (hdw), symbolizing death/fertility and purity respectively. Egyptian art used distinct black and red pigments.

In Chinese culture, the classical theory of five elements (metal, wood, water, fire, earth) associates black with water, white with metal, and red with fire. The yin-yang dichotomy also links white with yang and black with yin.

Ancient Greek texts described colors like leukon (white), melas (black), erythros (red), khloros (green/yellow), and kyaneos (blue). But black, white, and red appear earliest in their writing.

The Vedas, foundational Hindu texts likely dating back to the 2nd millennium BCE, reference the terms krishna (black), shveta (white), and lohita (red).

Across these and other early cultures, commonalities emerge in having distinct words for black and white, followed by red as another primary color. This matches conclusions from anthropology and linguistics about humanity’s first color terminology.

Why Black, White, and Red Seem Primary

It’s reasonable to hypothesize that black, white, and red were the first recognized and named colors based on the evidence. But why might this be the case?

There are some logical reasons these colors may have primacy over others:

– Black and white represent extreme contrast in luminosity, the most basic optical distinction. This makes them perceptually salient.

– Distinguishing light from dark is essential adaptation, enabling creatures to hide, hunt, and navigate.

– Red is associated with blood, fire, and life – concepts of inherent importance and strong visual/emotional impact.

– Red also stands out against natural backgrounds and was likely the first hue distinguished other than black/white/grey.

– Red ochre provided an early vivid pigment for use in rituals, body painting, cave art, etc.

– Most dichromatic mammals can perceive red, enhancing its accessibility and status as
primary color.

– More abstract colors like green and blue blend into the environment, making them harder to distinguish and name without better developed color vision and language.

So the prominence of black, white, and red across early cultures matches expectations based on human vision, utility, semantics, and psychology. While not the sole colors recognized, they formed a foundation for color language upon which additional terms were built.

Caveats and Uncertainties

There are some important caveats to the claim that black, white, and red were the first colors:

– Ancient texts may not record the full range of color terms used colloquially at those times. Undocumented words referring to other hues may have existed.

– Prehistoric evidence is limited and open to interpretation regarding color usage and categorization.

– Primitive color terms were unlikely fixed, but rather usage and meaning evolved over time and across different groups.

– Color categories do not have rigid boundaries – distinctions between light/dark, warm/cool, and hue/saturation are fluid.

– The primacy of black, white and red is largely inferred from limited samples of cultures and languages, raising questions about universal validity.

So while we can reasonably speculate black, white, and red to be first based on available information, the inherent flexibility of color semantics and gaps in evidence make conclusions tentative and subject to revision with further research.


In the absence of conclusive proof, the origins of human color naming and categorization remain partly speculative. However, evidence across fields like neuroscience, anthropology, and linguisticsconverges to suggest black, white, and red as likely the first colors to emerge in human culture and communication. This reflects their visual prominence, practical utility, and semantic associations in early human environments and societies. Future discoveries may further illuminate how our ancestors first divided the rainbow in their minds and vocabulary. But for now, we can imagine those first flickers of color kindling human creativity and culture.