Indonesian cave art sets new record

By Karl Gruber 9 October 2014
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Ancient paintings found in caves on Sulawesi may be the oldest artworks found outside Europe.

HIDDEN IN A network of seven caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, Australian researchers have dated a series of paintings to nearly 40,000 years old. This is the oldest confirmed cave art anywhere outside Europe.

The images include pig-like animals called babirusas, which were dated to 35,500 years old, and twelve stencils of humans hands, some of which have been dated to 39,900 years old. The discovery, made by a team led by Dr Maxime Aubert at Griffith University in Queensland, is revealed today in the journal Nature.

The age of the paintings was determined by measuring ratios of isotopes of uranium and thorium in ‘cave popcorn’ – tiny stalactites that had formed on top of the paintings.

Cave art reveals explosion in human creativity

“It is often assumed that Europe was the centre of the earliest explosion in human creativity, especially cave art, about 40,000 ago,” Maxime says. “But our rock art dates from Sulawesi show that at around the same time on the other side of the world people were making pictures of animals as remarkable as those in the Ice Age caves of France and Spain.”

Modern humans left Africa sometime between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago, but no one knows if they carried with them the ability to make complex art, says Dr Bruno David an archaeologist at Monash University in Melbourne, who was not involved in the discovery.

So far, the oldest known cave art is a painting of a red disk at El Castillo in Spain which has been dated to 41,000 years old. France’s Chauvet Cave, which features incredible paintings of horses, cave lions, mammoths and bison, is about 37,000 years old.

Though some Australian Aboriginal rock art is thought to be of a similar age, no art of this antiquity outside Europe has ever been confirmed with dating methods before.

Link to Australian Aboriginal rock art

The new discovery “takes the debate about the origins of art away from Europe, redirecting our gaze to the east of Africa,” Bruno told Australian Geographic.

Artistry may have developed before humans migrated from Africa across the world, says Professor Paul Tacon, an anthropologist and archaeologist, also at Griffith University, but not involved in the new discovery. Or it may be that “rock art practices of making hand stencils and skillfully executed depictions of wild animals were independently invented in far flung parts of the world,” he says.

Australia hosts a rich ensemble of Aboriginal art, some of which – such as a painting of a long-extinct giant bird – may be as old as the art found in Sulawesi, says Professor Peter Veth, an expert on rock art at the University of Western Australia in Perth.

“Early Australian Aboriginal art should be of a similar order of antiquity if the appropriate geology and preservations conditions occur,” he says.

However, dating rock art in remote parts of Australia is difficult and expensive, and obtaining funding remains an issue, says Peter. His team recently obtained a major grant to tackle this question at an important archaeological site in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The oldest confirmed Australian painting is from the Arnhem Land site of Nawarla Gabarnmang, which dates to around 27,000 years ago.