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. 2016 Jan 15;6(1):7.
doi: 10.3390/ani6010007.

Ochre Bathing of the Bearded Vulture: A Bio-Mimetic Model for Early Humans Towards Smell Prevention and Health

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Free PMC article

Ochre Bathing of the Bearded Vulture: A Bio-Mimetic Model for Early Humans Towards Smell Prevention and Health

Helmut Tributsch. Animals (Basel). .
Free PMC article

Abstract

Since primordial times, vultures have been competing with man for animal carcasses. One of these vultures, the once widespread bearded vulture ( Gypaetus barbatus ), has the habit of bathing its polluted feathers and skin in red iron oxide - ochre - tainted water puddles. Why? Primitive man may have tried to find out and may have discovered its advantages. Red ochre, which has accompanied human rituals and everyday life for more than 100,000 years, is not just a simple red paint for decoration or a symbol for blood. As modern experiments demonstrate, it is active in sunlight producing aggressive chemical species. They can kill viruses and bacteria and convert smelly organic substances into volatile neutral carbon dioxide gas. In this way, ochre can in sunlight sterilize and clean the skin to provide health and comfort and make it scentless, a definitive advantage for nomadic meat hunters. This research thus also demonstrates a sanitary reason for the vulture's habit of bathing in red ochre mud. Prehistoric people have therefore included ochre use into their rituals, especially into those in relation to birth and death. Significant ritual impulses during evolution of man may thus have developed bio-mimetically, inspired from the habits of a vulture. It is discussed how this health strategy could be developed to a modern standard helping to fight antibiotics-resistant bacteria in hospitals.

Keywords: Gypaetus barbatus; disease prevention; ochre; photo-sterilization; smell neutralization.

Figures

Figure 1
Figure 1
The bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbaticus) has a genetically anchored addiction to taint his feathers with red ochre mud.
Figure 2
Figure 2
Carcasses of animals were in distant past intensively frequented by vultures. They must have been regular companions of men when feeding on slaughtered animals. (Picture from rural India, 1968, Helmut Tributsch).
Figure 3
Figure 3
The Venus of Willendorf, a stone age symbol of fertility, estimated to be 24,000 to 22,000 years old, was once covered with red ochre (Natural History Museum, Vienna; photography by Helmut Tributsch).
Figure 4
Figure 4
Ochre bushmen rock painings from Brandberg, Namibia. The bushmen mixed red ochre with blood or egg white to paint social and ritual activities, or the mythical rain bringing giraffe as seen here (Helmut Tributsch).
Figure 5
Figure 5
Himba women use ochre mixed with fat and herbs to treat daily the skin and the hair. They consider this as a cosmetic as well as health-supporting procedure (Helmut Tributsch).
Figure 6
Figure 6
Scheme explaining the action of ochre (mixed with organic substances like fat) on the skin. In the outer layer visible light (with energies exceeding 2 eV) is absorbed. Electrons from the organic components are filling the empty electronic ground state and suppressing recombination of the excited electrons, which are then reducing oxygen to form peroxide and OH radicals. They eliminate smell and kill bacteria and viruses.

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