Could early man only see three colors?

In his answer to this question, see
Cecil mentions in support to the theory, that ancient Greek painters only used white, black, red and yellow in their paintings.
Until the Middle Age, painters used primarily clay as pigments. There are white, black, red, yellow and even green clays, but not blue ones. That’s why you don’t see normally blues in ancient paintings.
Blue pigments could be obtained from precious stones, like lapis lazuli, but no painter would use this pigment except when he was painting for the nobility.
In the palace of the Popes in Avignon, there is a painting with tones of blue, obtained from lapis lazuli, but the Popes could afford that.

Well, duh – as a child living on a farm, I made my own paints out of available materials, like beets, onion skins, mustard weed, rhurbarb leaves, etc. Including . . . blueberries, which make a nice blue color.

Were the ancient Greeks too dumb to look in their own gardens? I don’t think so. And I seem to recall seeing in a Museum ancient Greek bowls that were white with blue designs on them.

So I think I’d like to see a cite for “ancient Greek painters only used white, black, red and yellow”.

Organic pigments change color with the pH of the medium and with time. I don’t know how much you are familiar with wines, but a young wine is purple, almost blue. As it ages the wine changes it’s color to ruby red, to grenat(I don’t know if the English word is that!) and finally amber.
A vegetal pigment is okay for a painting by a child, but anyone who wants the permanence of color must use an inorganic pigment.
By the way, it’s Cecil that says Greeks used only those colors.

I was much more intrigued by the confomity of color names across cultures. It seems to me that there must be more to this commonality than just the available pigmnets used in painting and pottery. I’ve been trying to work out an armchair reason behind this, but I hesitate to mention any of my speculations here.

I don’t understand what you mean by conformity of color names across cultures. Do you think that non Indoeuropean languages have color names similar to the Indoeuropean ones?
I am really curious about your speculations. That’s what this forum is meant to be.

I believe he’s referring to this well established general rule (quoted directly from Cecil’s original column):

  1. All languages contain terms for white and black.

  2. If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.

  3. If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).

  4. If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.

  5. If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.

  6. If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.

  7. If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains a term for purple, pink, orange, grey, or some combination of these.

No-one understands this, but it’s a pragmatic truth.

Three other data points: Russian has two different colors that we call “blue”; most languages have no word for pink but the word for “red”, and Welsh has no word for “blue” that does not also mean “green” or “gray”.

So does this mean that the Crayola box is the pinnacle of civilization?

But seriously, it really bothers me that blue, one of the four fundamental receptors by which we are able to perceive light, gets so little recognition. Is it really conceivable to call blue as gray or black?

Perhaps it has something to do with necessity and abundance. Red surely has some sort of basic instictual warning associated with it that makes it the most important color (and hence the first one to be named). It is the color of fire, blood, danger, and red traffic lights, among other things. Green and yellow are the colors of nature, depending whether you live in a desert or in a forest (brown, also abundant, can however be merely considered off-black or dark yellow), as well as, along with red, the color of many vibrant lethal animals (poisonous frogs, snakes, insects, etc.). Blue i guess has little importance and doesn’t appear much aside from in the sky and in blueberries. Sure, it’s very fundamental, but its scarcity limits its necessity as a color. All the other colors can be considered mostly superfulous, as they closely resemble the primary ones, with brown having the distinction of appearing a lot in nature and being most frequent out of these.

Your guesses are certainly reasonable.

Blue is scarce for us, city dwellers. For the primitive man the sky was the majority of his field of view.
Red is really scarce. Plants produce red flowers in order to contrast with the green background and attract the pollinizing insects. In the same way they produce red fruits to attract the birds who will disperse the seeds.
Red is used in traffic lights, in danger signs and in fire engines exactly to contrast with the background, wich has pratically no reds, turning them more visible.
Perhaps the fact that it is rare and contrasts with the background led the primitive man to create a word for the color.

Sure, the sky fills up half of a person’s field of view, but who needs to mention its color except in the question “why is the sky blue.” There would be little use for the word since there are few objects to use it on (even though those objects may be quite big).

But I do agree that contrast would be a prime feature of any red object, making it prone to be described in terms of its color. However, i think that it’s not only that objects that are red are distinct, but also that there are so many important red objects that would give the color even more merit. It can be argued that blood and fire, and the many things they symbolize (life, death, war, danger, survival, etc.), were the two most important things for early man.

Just some caveman-food-for-thought:

“Sky not blue now. Look like rain”
“Sky blue now, not constant, dismal gray of winter. Time to start our progress from hunter/gatherer to agriculture. Let’s plant some of those seeds while the sky is still blue.”

Note that:
<< 1. All languages contain terms for white and black. >>

My WAG is that this if a language really only has two terms for colors, we’re talking really “light” and “dark,” rather than literally white and black. Thus, fgarriel’s cavepersons can call the sky “light/white” if there are no heavy dark clouds, and “dark/black” if there are.

Unless you’re dealing with painting or fashions, one could get along pretty well with “light,” “dark”, and “blood-color” (or perhaps “fire-color”). Heck, painters today see the color-wheel in terms of red, blue, yellow and infinite variations of combinations thereof.