The History of the Color Black: Mystery, Death, and Beauty

Beautiful woman in a dark room wearing black clothes and makeup celebrating Day of the Dead

Humanity has always had a special relationship with color. On a purely physical level color is nothing more than an interaction between our eye’s photoreceptors and different frequencies of light. But the emotional meaning of color is so much more than that. Every color has a unique meaning to both individuals and the culture in which they live. What’s more, we also see that meaning shifts over time as people explore the use of various colors.

Black is one of the most notable examples of this trend. It’s one of the easiest colors to create. And this ease of use translates to a lengthy and fascinating history, which we’ll be exploring in this post.

The Dawn of Human Civilization

Altamira caves Spanish rock art cave painting of black colored bison

The official story of the color black begins near the humble Spanish village of Santillana del Mar. We find several cave systems in this area. But the Altamira caves are by far the most notable. This is due to the majestic paintings found within the cave’s interior.

Prehistoric cave paintings are inherently precious. They’re one of the few records we have of humanity’s growth into civilization. The Altamira caves are notable even among this inherently important classification. This is because the Altamira cave paintings are the oldest known example of human artistry. Researchers estimate that the paintings were created around 34,000 to 15,000 BCE.

These paintings aren’t just the first example of art. It’s also the first known example of human made black pigments. The cave artists used both charcoal and manganese for black coloring. It’s also important to note how black is used within the paintings. Many of the images have black outlines. We also see black used to represent both fur and as a shading technique.

Interestingly enough the use of black here is a little more complex than in the slightly less ancient Lascaux cave paintings. This is quite impressive given that the Altamira might be as much as 15,000 years older than the paintings in Lascaux. The artists who created the Lascaux paintings only used manganese for black colors rather than creating mixtures.

It’s also important to remember that humans were almost certainly creating art that predates the cave paintings. It’s also quite probable that art with black markings would have been among humanity’s first attempts at painting. After all, with the creation of fire comes ash. But any such practices are inevitably lost to time. Sadly, most of the specifics of the early human diaspora are also left to our imagination. We can only resume the story of humanity’s view of color at a point where written language also emerges.

The Mystery of Early Sumar

Bas-reliefs with inscriptions of the ancient Sumerians

Mesopotamia is often thought of as the cradle of civilization. The region was mainly dominated by Sumerians and Akkadians. And it’s the Sumerians who are particularly noteworthy in the history of the color black. This is because the people of Sumar probably referred to themselves as “the black-headed ones”.

It’s often difficult to say much about this ancient culture with any certainty. The earliest full text from Sumar dates back to 3,500 BCE. Saying that 5,000 years is a long time would be an understatement. And there’s still ongoing debate about just what Sumerians meant by the phrase. Likewise, even the validity of translating their name as “black-headed ones” is debatable.

The term might very well refer to their hair color. It could just as easily refer to the color of their skin. But in any case, this still marks an intriguing moment for the color black. We see it rise up as a definitive indicator of identity. What’s more, we also see black show up in a mysterious context. This is hardly the last time that darkness and mystery will show up alongside each other.

Three Important Deities of Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt judgment of the dead in the presence of the deity Osiris

Ancient Egypt sits alongside Mesopotamia as one of the oldest civilizations. It persisted from roughly 3,100 BCE to 641 AD. And it most certainly held the color black in high esteem. Perhaps the most notable use of black in Egyptian culture can be seen in their depiction of Osiris. This Egyptian deity was held as the ultimate judge of the dead and ruler of the underworld. He shouldn’t be seen as a terrifying death god though. Osiris didn’t just judge the dead, he also held out hope for a life after death. And the skin color of this deity? Osiris was typically depicted with black or green skin.

We see the association between black and death through much of ancient Egyptian culture. Anubis, another god associated with death, was portrayed as black-skinned. But we also see how black is tied to life with the similar color attributed to Bastet. She was one of the most worshipped deities in ancient Egypt. And this black-skinned goddess was associated with women, fertility, and of course cats.

The ancient Egyptians typically created black paint by using charcoal. But they had one extra twist to further the paint’s association with death. Their black pigments would sometimes contain burnt animal bones. It’s quite common for a culture to assign symbolic meaning to a color. However, the Egyptians managed to take this a step further by merging the medium conveying color into the message. Their black pigment, signifying death, might actually contain the remains of a dead animal.

Shifting Continents to Look Into the Color History of Mesoamerica

Tikal Mayan temple ruins in the jungle

Our examination of artistry in different cultures now needs to shift over to Mesoamerica. The Olmecs were one of the first great cultures of Mesoamerica. However, it’s also one of the area’s greatest mysteries. The Olmec culture rose around 1,500 BCE and finally faded away around 400 BCE. No documents from the culture have ever been discovered. And what little writing of theirs survived is currently undeciphered. The Olmecs were extraordinarily talented artists. Likewise, they had a robust religious tradition. These two cultural points almost guarantee that they had some cultural assumptions about color. But unless we stumble on a preserved cache or their writings it’s almost certain that the details will forever remain a mystery.

Of course, there are other, better understood, ancient Mesoamerican cultures. The Mayan culture predates the Olmec by a few hundred years. They rose around 2,000 BCE and fell by 900 CE. The Mayans placed great importance on color and art. They were able to obtain dyes from a wide variety of different sources. Spanish invaders noted that the Maya obtained black pigments from charcoal.

Mayans typically associated black with war. This association would certainly ring true for anyone watching Mayan battles. The ancient Mayans often created weapons out of black obsidian. One of the most notable examples is the Mayan war club. These weapons were 42 inches long and lined with black obsidian blades on three sides.

The Mayans rose and fell alongside the Aztec empire which lasted from roughly 1345 BCE to 1521 CE. The Aztecs differed from the Maya in their view of the color black. To the Aztec, black was synonymous with the god Tezcatlipoca. This deity ruled over fate, destiny, and the night. The Aztec also associated colors with the cardinal directions.

Black was linked to the north. And north was associated with death and lent black some additional association with the subject. In general, black was considered particularly divine due to its presence in materials that had a natural shine. Priests would even apply black stripes to their faces during certain rituals. Along with this, they’d adorn themselves with black accessories.

Looking East to Experience the Beauty of Ink Wash Painting

Traditional Japanese sumi-e painting using black and red ink

We’ll next move on to another ancient culture – China. Historians usually point to the Shang dynasty, starting in 1600 BCE, as the start of the Chinese empire. The imperial age of China finally ended in 1912 CE.

It’s easy to see why the meaning of colors would shift as the ages rolled by. However, the color black has retained some constants. It was once seen as a more overtly negative color. However, this generally changed as the great philosopher Lao Tzu became more well-known. The 9th century BCE saw more people considering white and black as opposing but balanced forces thanks to his writing. The interdependence of positive and negative attributes within the same greater entity puts a different spin on each.

This dual respect for white and black in Taoism led to a whole new art style. China created a distinct and breathtaking ink wash style of painting that draws heavily from the contrast of black and white. Much as in Taoism, the white and black of ink wash paintings are distinct from each other but also essential. Remove one of those colors from the image and the image collapses.

This form of painting would eventually be taken up by Japan as well. It’s thought that the first Buddhist monks to teach in Japan arrived around 467 AD. Buddhism would often act as a bridge between Japanese culture and that of other lands. It’s thought that this cultural exchange is what first brought ink wash painting into Japan. The art style would eventually be adopted under the name sumi-e. Japanese artists focused on reduced and more simplified strokes. The beautiful black strokes were further complemented by poems carefully written out using equally striking black characters.

A Historical Journey to the West

Leonardo da Vinci sculpture and Vitruvian Man drawing

We can now turn our eye to the more familiar history of the Western world. We find many examples of cave paintings in the West. These range from the earliest paintings in the Altamira caves to the complex art of Lascaux in France. But things really become interesting when we reach the renaissance. Leonardo Da Vinci’s works are particularly notable for their use of black ink. He demonstrated that a fine point and careful attention could leverage a single color in a remarkably complex way.

This period wasn’t just about singular examples of fine inkwork either. Cennino Cennini wrote the highly influential Il Libro dell’arte to provide a firm foundation to the budding artists of the renaissance era. He stresses that artists should begin with a stylus and tablet.

Only after practicing for a year would an artist be ready to work with black ink. He advises artists to approach their craft as devoutly as a priest would his theological studies. This puts art as the foundation of one’s life rather than a secondary trait at its periphery. The fact that he uses black ink and line drawings as a foundation should be particularly noteworthy in the Western world’s relation to the color black.

The renaissance artist of the time would primarily source his ink from gall nut extract mixed with iron sulfates. But the exact composition of ink could differ tremendously on a case-by-case basis. One ink might be created with water and another with wine. Likewise, one person might add additional gum Arabic, another iron sulfate, and yet others might use both options.

A Tale of Pilgrims and Victorian Sensibility

Pilgrim Fathers arrive in America by boat in December 1620

In the 1600s we see Europeans beginning their long trek to the Americas. Modern depictions usually portray the early pilgrims as dour settlers bedecked in stifling black clothing. This is actually very far from the truth. These earliest immigrants loved colorful clothing. Their choices might be limited by budget and the availability of dyes. But other than those factors a pilgrim would happily wear just about any color of the rainbow.

However, the puritans followed in the wake of the pilgrims. And it was these more wealthy settlers who favored black clothing. At the time, black clothing was much more expensive than most of the alternatives. This is somewhat analogous to how a modern eye judges a black suit differently than a blazer. Victorians much preferred this black and stately aesthetic and used it predominantly in their representations of early American life. The Victorian preference created an image of black-clad pilgrims which persists even to this day. And this leads us back to the modern world.

The Many Choices of the Modern World

Night view from the mountains with stars on the black sky

Today we generally see black as a more utilitarian color that’s often defined by the element it’s paired with. For example, black and orange often symbolize Halloween. Add some white dots to black and we have a portrayal of the sky at night. Black clothing can imply either formality with a suit or rebellion against authority with counterculture styles. And black is widely used in art to further any of the traditions we’ve looked at. In the end black has become as ever present in the modern world as it was in the cave paintings of old. There are also plenty of black things to be found in nature.