By dating popcorn-shaped mineral formations on the walls and ceilings of Indonesian caves, researchers reveal that a series of hand stencils and pig paintings are some of the oldest cave art in the world. At around 40,000 years old, these images rival the age of cave paintings in Europe, previously considered to be the center of early human creativity. The work, published in Nature this week, is the first time anyone has dated Pleistocene cave art in the tropics.
From cave paintings to carved figurines, a plethora of sophisticated artwork between 35,000 to 40,000 years old have been discovered in Western Europe. And there’s practically no evidence of similar work from the same period elsewhere. While prehistoric images in caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi have been discovered in the 1950s, there’s been no attempt to date them, until now.
Using uranium-thorium dating, an international team led by Maxime Aubert from Griffith University in Australia analyzed mineral growths called coralloid speleothems (aka “cave popcorn”) that formed over 12 human hand stencils and two animal depictions from seven limestone cave sites near Maros on southern Sulawesi.
These rock art traditions, they found, are at least as old as the oldest known European art from the opposite end of the Pleistocene Eurasian world -- and likely even older. The oldest Sulawesi image they dated was created at least 39,900 years ago, making it the oldest known hand stencil in the world. A painting of a babirusa (or “pig-deer,” a primitive fruit-eating pig) was dated to at least 35,400 years ago, and it represents one of the world’s earliest figurative depictions dated thus far. Here’s a babirusa with a hand stencil:
“It is often assumed that Europe was the center of the earliest explosion in human creativity, especially cave art,” Aubert says in a news release, “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.”
These stenciled outlines of human hands were made by blowing or spraying paint around hands pressed against the cave surfaces. Since the mineral layers formed on top (and thus after) the images, the dates give a minimum age. If these new dates hold up, then the stencils are just a bit older than the hand outlines at Chauvet Cave in southern France, which was also covered with rhinos, horses, lions, and women with pronounced vulvas, Science reports.
“Rock art is one of the first indicators of an abstract mind -- the onset of being human as we know it,” says study coauthor Thomas Sutikna from the University of Wollongong in a statement. “Rock art might have emerged independently at about the same time in early modern human populations in Europe and Southeast Asia, or it might have been widely practiced by the first modern humans to leave Africa tens of thousands of years earlier.” Future work will tell.
Check out some remarkable imagery in this Nature Video:
Images: Kinez Riza
Video: Nature Video