Paracas ceramic pot

This South American ceramic vessel was embellished with mineral-based pigments in the 3rd to 6th centuries BC. Credit: age fotostock/Alamy

Archaeology

Reptile urine used as paint in ancient Peru

Snake waste the probable source of white colour on pottery from first millennium BC.

Some of the most striking ceramics known from prehistoric South America are decorated with a pigment derived from reptile urine.

The Paracas culture, which flourished along the Pacific coast of what is now Peru in the first millennium BC, is known for its colourful, intricately detailed textiles and pottery. Dawn Kriss, then at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and her colleagues set out to research the ancient artists’ techniques. They analysed the chemical components of the paint on more than a dozen Paracas ceramics, including bowls and vases.

The team found that the white paint (pictured below) on two fragments of pottery contained uric acid, which is a component of urine, and white particles. Similar particles previously recovered from African rock art have been identified as originating from snake urine. Blue paint on the fragments included urine and indigo.

Paracas ceramic shark with blue and white pigment

Credit: Dawn Kriss/American Museum of Natural History (41.2/8345 AMNH)

The urine used by the South American artists might also have come from snakes, which are commonly depicted on Paracas textiles and ceramics.