Newly dated Asian cave drawings rewrite history of human art
A new study published in the journal Nature has revealed that ancient paintings of hands and animals found within seven limestone caves on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, are as old as famous prehistoric art in Europe. The research shows that humans were producing rock art by 40,000 years ago at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world.
More than one hundred cave paintings were found in the caves near Maros in southern Sulawesi in the 1950s, most created with a pigment called red ochre. The rock art consists of numerous hand stencils, as well as naturalistic animal depictions. Blowing or spraying pigment around a hand pressed against rock surfaces was a common practice among cave artists down through the ages, and have been found in numerous countries throughout the world.
Prior to any effective dating method, the cave paintings were estimated to be around 10,000 years old. However, in 2011, scientists noticed small mineral outcroppings on the drawings, known as ‘cave popcorn’, which would make it possible to date the paintings using the new technology of uranium decay dating. The results were surprising and unexpected.
“Using uranium-series dating of coralloid speleothems directly associated with 12 human hand stencils and two figurative animal depictions from seven cave sites in the Maros karsts of Sulawesi, we show that rock art traditions on this Indonesian island are at least compatible in age with the oldest European art,” wrote the study authors in the journal Nature.
Until now, the oldest known cave paintings are 40,800-year-old red disks and hand stencils from El Castillo, in northern Spain, which were also dated using uranium decay.
Red dots found in El Castillo cave in Spain. Credit: Pedro Saura. Image source .
“The earliest dated image from Maros, with a minimum age of 39,900 years, is now the oldest known hand stencil in the world,” write the study authors. “In addition, a painting of a babirusa (‘pig-deer’) made at least 35,400 years ago is among the earliest dated figurative depictions worldwide, if not the earliest one.”
Painting of a babirusa (‘pig deer’) in Sulawesi is the oldest known figurative depiction in the world. Image source: Nature
Maxime Aubert, study lead and archaeologist and geochemist of Australia's Griffith University, explained that before this discovery, experts had a Europe-centric view of how, when, and where humans started making cave paintings and other forms of figurative art. However, the fact that people in Sulawesi were also producing art at the same time suggests that either human creativity emerged independently at about the same time around the world, or when humans left Africa they already had the capacity and inclination for art.
If that is the case, the Australian-Indonesian research team wrote, “we can expect future discoveries of depictions of human hands, figurative art and other forms of image-making dating to the earliest period of the global dispersal of our species,”
Featured image: Prehistoric hand stencils from a cave in Indonesia. Credit: Kinez Riza
Aubert, M. et al. (2014). Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature, 514, 223-227.