Oldest figurative artwork found in a cave that's full of surprises

Oldest known animal drawing found in remote Indonesian cave

They removed samples smaller than one centimetre (half an inch) across from the artworks and found one painting of an animal had been produced at least 40,000 years ago, and possibly almost 52,000 years ago. The researchers note a big change in the local rock art dated back around 20,000 years ago.

Even if they are not the absolute record holders in terms of age, the images show that people across the world from one another were doing similar artwork in caves at the same time.

This large cave wall in Borneo features several paintings of wild cattle; the indistinct image at top center has been dated to at least 40,000 years old. The revelation that a Palaeolithic rock art tradition was established in Indonesia at least 40,000 years ago challenges the long-held belief that Europe was the cradle of early artistic creativity. Researchers have known about these human-made drawings since 1994, but they didn't know when the illustrations were created until now, said Aubert, who worked with Indonesia's National Research Centre for Archaeology (ARKENAS) and the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB).

In the 1990s, Indonesian and French archaeologists trekked into the remote interior mountains of East Kalimantan, an Indonesian province of Borneo. It was dated approximately 35,400 years old.

The study was published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature.

The study also showcases another interesting parallel: previously, early cave paintings were predominantly found in Europe (particularly in today's Spain), and they show quite a bit of resemblance to the ones found in Borneo.

The world's oldest painting of an animal has been discovered in Borneo, dating back to 12,000 years before the earliest known examples in Europe.


The hand stencils are made in a similar pigment, and were determined to be at least 37,000 years old. Through dating, a study has found that the cave paintings are approximate 40,000 years old.

Alternatively, Indonesia and Europe may have been separate areas of innovation where ice age rock art emerged independently - if so, it is possible the very earliest cave paintings may one day be found in Southeast Asia rather than Europe. It is the oldest known work of figurative cave art - art that depicts an image from real life.

Maxime Aubert said: "It looks like there was a transition from depicting the animal world to [depicting] the human world". Uranium-series analysis of calcium carbonate deposits that overlie the painting have been conducted to track its date.

"Many of these stencils are partly in-filled with painted lines, dashes, dots and small abstract signs that possibly represent tattoos or other marks of social identification, and in some instances hand stencils are linked together by painted mulberry lines that form intricate tree-like motifs, which perhaps symbolize kinship connections", they wrote. In addition to the animal, in East Kalimantan, there are also representations of human hands. "But the fact that many of them are in places that are hard to access, where people don't normally live, suggests a "ritual" element in their creation", he added.

"Most of what we know about how we lived in the Pleistocene is based on archeology and that's usually people's rubbish - what they left behind", Aubert said.

"Who those artists were is unclear, but the most likely scenario is that they were Homo sapiens, ancient humans", says Brumm.

Around 14,000 years ago, the cave-dwellers began to regularly sketch human figures doing things like dancing and hunting, often wearing large headdresses. "It's an intimate window into the past". Rock art was made for a goal and we can see how people lived a long time ago in a way that archaeology can't provide.

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