White clock with mottled brown and blue shapes that look like continents, 2018.
history pragmatic historian

Color History & Hubris

The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair.
The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair.

I finished reading a fabulous book on the history of color and colorants called “The Secret Lives of Color” by Kassia St. Clair. The design of the book is, appropriately enough, full of color, from the multi-colored polka dots on the front cover to the color bands on the page edges.

Deep dives into a particular topic over the course of history, such as this book presents, provide a concentrated look at the development of technologies, a sense of how people’s views on a topic have changed, and reveal connections across time that aren’t readily apparent when only a thin slice of history is examined.

The artists, colorists and scientists who have worked to create pigments are tied together by their love of alchemy, transforming a mix of ingredients into something greater than their constituent parts. From the cave painters at Lascaux and Altamira to English textile dyers to Chinese ink producers, people the world over have been in search of vibrant, long-lasting pigments that would allow them to make a permanent mark upon the world.

St. Clair covers the many substances colorists have used to create pigments that have waxed and waned in popularity, including mummies, which were ground up for their bitumin,  producing a brown color. It appears to have taken a good number of years for the queasy factor and people’s sense of decorum concerning the dead to kick in for this practice to peter out. (pg. 253-255)

One of the stories that St. Clair relates in the book had me shaking my head because I have seen this behavior far too often. In her chapter on charcoal, St. Clair discusses the discovery of the cave paintings at Altamira, Spain, by 9-year-old Maria Sanz de Sautuola and her father in 1879.

“When her father published the finding in 1880, he was met with ridicule. The experts scoffed at the very idea that prehistoric man — savages really — could have produced sophisticated polychrome paintings.” (pg. 274)

“Experts scoffed.” How often have people of today scoffed at people of the past? Why have we not taken their accomplishments more seriously? How many times have we decided that aliens must have swung in from outer space in order to create something on earth (pyramids, Nazca lines) because those measly humans of the past couldn’t possibly have had the wherewithal to do anything so impressive?

What hubris!

Rather than casting a dismissive eye on our forebears, we ought to remember how much knowledge is lost, even within the span of our own lives or within just a few hundred years. Researchers have been puzzling over how to decode Quipu, the Inca language “written” in knots, for years.

Our hubris ought to be replaced with humility, not solely because this humility will allow us to approach the past with an open mind, but because our descendants may decide to judge us as harshly as we judge our ancestors. Do we really want future experts to scoff at us.

2 thoughts on “Color History & Hubris”

  1. Very often it has been not just “measly humans”, but humans of color whose abilities and creativity have been questioned. For example, European Americans denied for a long time that Native Americans built the city at Cahokia.

    1. Bobbie – I spoke to a man this week who insisted that Native Americans had no society prior to white men coming to the U.S. Cahokia and the many other societal structures Native Americans built came to mind, as did Charles Mann’s book “1491.” I did my best to disavow him of this notion, telling him that, yes, Native Americans had their own complex societies. I’m not sure I changed his mind, but I definitely challenged his thinking because I could see him adjusting his arguments as I brought up new points.

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