Culture&Arts

The Oldest Known Figurative Painting Has Been Found, Dating Back 40,000 Years

The Oldest Known Figurative Painting Has Been Found, Dating Back 40,000 Years

They also dated maroon-coloured hand stencils from the same cave, including one that could be up to 51,800 years old.

The reddish-orange artwork, which is about 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide and dates back to at least 40,000 years ago, depicts an animal that is not readily identifiable.

"It now seems that two early cave art provinces arose at a similar time in remote corners of Paleolithic Eurasia: one in Europe, and one in Indonesia at the opposite end of this ice age world", study co-researcher Adam Brumm, an associate professor of archaeology at Griffith University, said in a statement.

Until now it was always assumed figurative cave painting - depicting animals and people - originated in western Europe about 40,000 years ago, although the earliest abstract art has recently been found dating from 73,000 years ago in South Africa.

The area of Borneo where the caves are located is relatively unexplored, so there could be many other examples waiting to be found.

The paintings are more than 4,000 years older than the previous record holders on nearby Sulawesi, according to Science magazine.

These recent Indonesian cave art discoveries are significant because they essentially rewrite the history of art and human cultural achievement.

Now, as they report today in Nature, Aubert's joint Indonesian-Australia team has dated a painting of what may be a banteng, a Southeast Asian wild cattle, in Borneo's Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave, to at least 40,000 years ago; hand stencils there may be up to 52,000 years old, making them among the oldest such prints in the world.

Older hominid species also lived in the area, including the "hobbit" Homo floresiensis, whose remains date back 700,000 years.

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The figure shows animals that resembled cows. Well, if you get lucky - and Aubert and his team did - some rock will have grown over the art in the intervening millennia.

In limestone caves perched atop forbidding, densely forested peaks, the team discovered a vast trove of prehistoric artworks, including thousands of hand stencils (negative outlines of human hands) and rarer paintings of animals. Instead, "ice age" artists from Southeast Asia played a key role, but little is known about them. This attractive region is remote and difficult-to-access, and contains numerous caves, some of which contain remarkable drawings made by early humans.

Prof Alistair Pike, an archaeologist from the University of Southampton - who was not involved with the new research - welcomed the findings, but expressed reservations about the date for the oldest figurative painting. In addition to the animal, in East Kalimantan, there are also representations of human hands. Around 20,000 years ago, a new style of art emerged: a depiction of humans.

"This possibly reflects the arrival of another wave of humans, or a natural evolution in art development coinciding with the onset of the Large Glacial Maximum and a potential increase in population size in that part of Borneo, owing to more favorable conditions for humans", Aubert said.

To come up with the 40,000-year date for the painting of the animal, Dr Aubert and colleagues used scientific dating techniques on calcium carbonate deposits which are associated with the image.

Intensive research on the rock arts began in 2014. "We see the same thing in Europe at more or less the same time", Aubert said.

"Rock art provides an intimate window into the past", Aubert said.

A photo of cave painting in Borneo. Rock art was made for a objective and we can see how people lived a long time ago in a way that archaeology can't provide.