The color red has a long and rich history spanning cultures and millennia. Red pigments have been found dating back to prehistoric times, and the color holds deep symbolic meaning in many ancient civilizations. Understanding the origins and discovery of the color red provides insight into human history and culture.
Earliest Evidence of Red Pigments
The earliest evidence of red pigments used by humans dates back to the Paleolithic era, around 40,000 years ago. Archaeologists have uncovered red ochre pigments at burial sites in Australia dating to this time. Red ochre is an earthy pigment ranging from brownish red to deep orange or brick red. It consists mainly of iron oxide and clay.
Other early evidence comes from the Blombos Cave in South Africa, occupied between 100,000-70,000 years ago. Excavations revealed shells containing traces of red ochre, suggesting they were used as storage containers for the pigment. Red ochre may have been used symbolically, such as for body painting or rituals. The practice of mining red ochre also indicates it held value for Paleolithic peoples.
Additional early uses of red pigments include:
- Cave paintings – Many famous prehistoric cave paintings use red ochre and other red pigments, including those found at Altamira in Spain dating to around 35,600-13,500 BC.
- Burials – Red pigments were sometimes sprinkled over bodies or included in burial rituals. A burial in a cave in Iraq included body parts covered in red ochre around 60,000 BC.
- Cosmetics – Red pigments were used as makeup and face paint. For example, red ochre has been found among Aboriginal burial sites in Australia dating between 40,000-20,000 BC.
- Rock art – Many examples of prehistoric rock art around the world use red as the dominant color.
The widespread early use of red pigments demonstrates this vibrant color held significance for prehistoric peoples spanning the globe. Red ochre was clearly valued and traded across regions. The color red may have already been imbued with symbolic meaning such as life, death, and ritual.
Red in Ancient History & Culture
The prominence of the color red carried on throughout ancient civilizations, where it was associated with vitality, blood, fire, love, passion, fertility, sacrifice, and life itself. Here are some notable examples of red symbolism and use in antiquity:
- Used red ochre in burials and some cosmetics.
- The Red Crown was one of the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, symbolic of vitality and rulership.
- Red sun disk (Aten) was a symbol of the sun deity.
Greece & Rome
- Associated red with the god of war Ares/Mars.
- Roman brides wore red wedding dresses.
- The planet Mars was named for the red planet.
- Roman generals had a tradition of painting their faces red before triumphal processions.
- Believed red symbolized fire, luck, joy, and happiness.
- Brides wore red wedding outfits.
- Red was the color of the south cardinal direction.
- The Aztecs worshipped a red god, Xipe Totec, associated with agriculture, vegetation and the cycle of seasons.
- The headdresses of Aztec emperors contained red feathers.
- Northwest Coast native tribes used red ochre in art, clothing, and rituals.
These examples demonstrate how red held symbolic meaning across ancient cultures. Ritualistic and ceremonial uses of the color show its sacred place in society.
Advancements in Red Pigments
While red ochre and iron oxide-based pigments continued to be used through the centuries, new varieties of synthetic and organic red pigments emerged as civilizations advanced.
Cinnabar is a bright red mercury sulphide mineral, used as a pigment since antiquity. Evidence of cinnabar mining dates back over 5,000 years in Spain and the Balkans. The ancient Romans mined cinnabar deposits, known as “dragon’s blood,” in the Spanish province of Almadén. Cinnabar was highly prized by Greek, Egyptian, and Roman civilizations for its vivid red color. However, it was also toxic due to its mercury content.
In Medieval times, an improved synthetic version of cinnabar known as vermilion was invented. By combining sulphur and mercury, artisans could create the pigment on a larger scale. Vermilion became the standard luxury red of medieval manuscripts, frescoes, and paintings.
Carmine & Crimson
Other significant red pigments included carmine, derived from the cochineal beetle, and crimson, made from the kermes insect. These rich reds became accessible luxury pigments during the Renaissance era, prized by master painters.
Plant-based dyes also produced red pigments. Madder root produced a dye called alizarin, used as madder lake pigment in Renaissance works. Madder lake could range from pink to a deep bluish-red.
Modern Synthetic Reds
By the late 19th century, synthetic pigments largely replaced traditional red pigments in artistic and industrial use. These included:
- Cadmium red – Vivid and opaque cadmium-based pigments ranging from orange-red to bluish-red. Became popular with Impressionists but toxic.
- Naphthol red – Organic synthetic pigments discovered in the 1870s. Naphthol reds include brilliant scarlet hues.
- Toluidine red – Another modern organic synthetic pigment used in printing inks and plastic products.
- Quinacridone – Modern synthetic organic red introduced in the 1950s. Known for its resistance to fading.
Modern chemistry has created a vast array of synthetic red pigments with specialized properties for widespread colorization of products, plastics, and coatings.
Red in Modern Culture
Red continues to hold symbolic meaning in the modern world. Here are some prominent examples:
- Red is associated with love, passion, beauty, and romance in many cultures.
- The red rose is a symbol of romantic love.
- Red is used celebratory occasions like New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Canada Day, and Chinese New Year.
- In many cultures, red symbolizes luck, success, joy, life, and celebration.
- Red is used to convey danger, caution, and emergency in signs, signals, and alerts.
- Politically, red is associated with left-wing or communist parties and movements around the world.
- Red and scarlet are iconic colors worn by Santa Claus during Christmas.
- Red is the color of blood and often symbolizes courage, sacrifice, heroism, and martyrdom.
- In nature, red communicates ripeness in fruits, plants, and autumn leaves.
From prehistory to present day, the color red has maintained layered symbolic meanings in human culture, art, politics, and nature.
The human obsession with the color red spans eras and cultures, dating back to the earliest evidence of symbolic red pigment use 40,000+ years ago. Ancient civilizations used red extensively in art, clothing, and rituals to represent vitality, fertility, love, and sacrifice. While red ochre provided an early red pigment, advancements in chemistry led to synthetic reds and new varieties like vermilion, carmine, and crimson. Red continues to hold symbolic meaning in the modern world, communicating themes of romance, celebration, caution, and passion across many cultures. The discovery and use of the color red provides insight into the larger human relationship with color across history.