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


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer


The painting, depicting an unknown animal. Luc-Henri Fage

Researchers say they’ve discovered the oldest known figurative cave art in the world, which changes what we knew about the world's first art.

Figurative art is the drawing of real things, like a building or person. And in a cave in Borneo, a team led by Maxime Aubert from Griffith University in Australia say they’ve found a painting of an animal that dates back at least 40,000 years. Their findings are published in Nature.


"The oldest cave art image we dated is a large painting of an unidentified animal, probably a species of wild cattle still found in the jungles of Borneo – this has a minimum age of around 40,000 years and is now the earliest known figurative artwork,” Aubert said in a statement.

The painting was found in the limestone caves of Borneo’s East Kalimantan. Here there are thousands of rock art images of animals, humans, boats, and more. But the age of these paintings wasn’t previously known.

Other paintings dating back up to 20,000 years depict humans. Pindi Setiawan

Using uranium-series dating of calcium carbonate samples from one painting in particular, the team were able to work out its age. They also dated two hand stencils to 37,200 years old, and another to up to 51,800 years old. This led them to conclude that rock art developed in Borneo about 52,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Interestingly, they also found evidence for a major change within the culture about 20,000 years ago. Around this time rare paintings of humans started to appear, during a period when the climate was in the most extreme wraps of an ice age.


In their paper the team note that this suggests rock art emerged in Borneo at about the same time as in Europe, when modern humans arrived – about 45,000 to 43,000 years ago. Weirdly, this means similar cave art simultaneously sprung up in the extreme west and extreme east of Eurasia, with Borneo then being found on the easternmost tip.

“Whether this is a coincidence, the result of cultural convergence in widely separated regions, large-scale migrations of a distinct Eurasian population or another cause remains unknown,” they noted.

This finding suggests that cave art did not begin in Europe, as once thought. Instead, “ice age” artists from Southeast Asia played a key role, but little is known about them. “Who the ice age artists of Borneo were and what happened to them is a mystery,” Pindi Setiawan from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) in Indonesia said in the statement.


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