Color occupies a unique place in the average person’s worldview. On one hand, color is intrinsically subjective. We all experience different emotions when we look at various colors. But on the other hand, color is inherently tied to physics and mathematics. Every color occupies a specific numerical wavelength.
We also have a third, less commonly noted, method to define color which sits somewhere between the other two. We can also define color through the lens of history. As we explore different colors we’ll discover that they’re tightly bound into human history.
How We Define Color
Before we examine specific examples we should first take a moment to consider how language impacts our view of color. Pause for a second to think about your favorite color. There’s probably something about it which just speaks to your soul. But now think about similar colors. Can you imagine not being able to differentiate between those colors and your favorite?
For example, imagine someone who loves the color blue. He’d find it hard to imagine a world where he couldn’t recognize it. But think about how the open waters sometimes have either a blue or green tint. The two colors are extremely similar in many ways. If you only saw blue on rare occasions you might just consider it to be a specific shade of green. And in fact we know this happens thanks to a tribe which has no word for blue.
The tribe simply sees blue as a variation of green. Place the color blue next to shades of green and they’d have a hard time spotting it as the item which stands out from the rest. This specific example highlights that our ability to work with color is often shaped by language and cultural tradition. If people don’t talk about a color then we’ll often simply see it as a variant of something similar.
The Colors of History and Their Origin
Let’s take a look back in time and find out when and where each color was discovered.
Blue is one of the most well documented colors in history. We can debate which cultures were the first to work with a wide variety of different colors. However, we can be quite certain which culture identified and worked with the color blue for the first time. This also highlights why we need to consider the relationship between language, culture and history when talking about color.
Our concept of blue was created about 6,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. If you look at the works of ancient colors you’ll notice a similar quirk in most of them. Almost no ancient culture talks about the color blue.
The cultures of the ancient world simply saw blue as a variation on other colors. The main reason for the lack of distinction is probably due to how little chance they’d have to see examples of blue in their daily life. Blue simply doesn’t occur very often in the natural world when compared to other colors. Of course we have the sky. But it’s a single example among millions of other sights in our average day.
However, ancient Egypt had the means to produce blue dye by mining a semi-precious stone called Lapis Lazuli. This means that they also had the ability to fill their world with the color blue. They could dye statues, clothing and even their faces with blue pigment. This also means that their culture needed to develop ways to talk about variations within this pigment. It’s here that we really see the birth of humanity’s concept of blue as a singular color.
We know that green was used in clothing as far back as ancient Mesopotamia. This period stretches 10,000 years into the past. Ancient Mesopotamia is widely considered to be the foundation of human civilization. And the ancient Mesopotamians most certainly appreciated the color green.
We even see their appreciation of the color immortalized in surviving ceramics. This artwork shows people adorned in a variety of green costumes. We also see green used in the artwork of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.
An argument can be made that red is the oldest color in human history. In fact, we have evidence of it in the period of time which predates written history. Our earliest examples of the color red come from cave paintings which date back to 16,500 B.C.
The prehistoric artists created their paintings from ground red ochre. It’s not just a common color from that time either. Red was one of the only colors used in the Paleolithic era. This is due to the fact that red ochre was easily created from natural resources. In fact, it’s something anyone can try out for themselves today.
Egypt is also notable for their love of red ochre. Men and women alike would often use lipstick made of the substance. However, Cleopatra took it to the next level. She was well known for her use of expensive blue dyes as a form of makeup. But she also had her own unique type of lipstick made from a wide variety of different substances. However, even she used a little red ochre within it for color.
Use of yellow dyes, like red, dates back into prehistory. We’ve seen yellow used in cave paintings which are at least 17,000 years old. Amazingly enough this may exist as an unbroken chain into the modern era.
Ancient cave paintings were made using yellow ochre as the dying agent. This substance was widely used by most modern cultures until the 1920s when artificially created pigments proved more financially viable.
Today the color orange often evokes memories of Halloween. However, it has a history which predates that holiday by a considerable margin. Some of the oldest examples of orange date back, once again, to ancient Egypt.
Europeans wouldn’t have known what to make of the color. Until the 16th century Europe simply knew it as a variant of red. In fact, they simply called the shade “yellow-red”. Orange wasn’t recognized as a distinct color by English speakers until orange trees were imported from Asia.
The history of purple dates back to the bronze age. Around the 14th century BCE, the city of Tyre began producing a distinctly beautiful dye. Tyrians would create this dye from a few different shellfish found in the region. But even a small quantity of purple dye would call for thousands of shellfish to use as an ingredient.
It’s said that 10,000 shellfish were needed to make even 1 gram of purple dye. At one point we have historical records showing that the dye was valued at three times its weight in gold. And pre-dyed wool was priced at about the same as its equivalent weight in gold. This means that purple dyed wool was quite literally worth its weight in gold.
History Is a River That Never Ends
It’s easy to assume that the naming or discovery of color is something we’re long past. However, it’s important to remember the earlier example of a remote tribe which didn’t have a word for the color blue. It’s true that no new colors will suddenly spring into existence within the world. However, it’s quite possible for humans to stumble onto notable variants of color that we’re able to reproduce in the lab. For example, YInMn Blue was created in 2009.
In the end we’re all a part of history. It may well be that future generations will look back at our color preferences in shock. Those new civilizations may well wonder why we never used or talked about a color which to us would simply look like a minor variation in shade. But to them that variation in shade would constitute a notable, easily recognizable and important color.