News

These Indonesian Cave Paintings May Overturn Eurocentric Art History

Hand stencil in a cave in Indonesia, dated to at least 39,900 years old (photograph by Kinza Riza, via Nature.com)
Hand stencil in a cave in Indonesia, dated to at least 39,900 years old (photo by Kinza Riza, via Nature.com)

New dating of rock art in Indonesia shows that at the same time stampedes of bulls and horses were appearing in the Ardèche caves in France, similar art was being made in the Pacific region.

“Until now, we’ve always believed that cave painting was part of a suite of complex symbolic behavior that humans invented in Europe. […] This is actually showing that it’s highly unlikely that the origin of painting caves was in Europe,” Alistair Pike at the University of Southhampton told NPR.

The research was published this week in the scientific journal Nature by a team from Australia and Indonesia headed by Maxime Aubert and Adam Brumm of Griffith University. The scientists analyzed 12 human hand stencils and two paintings of figurative animals at seven sites in caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Their findings “show that rock art traditions on this Indonesian island are at least compatible in age with the oldest European art” and “it can now be demonstrated that humans were producing rock art by ~40 kyr [aka thousand years] ago at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world.”

Taking a sample from the rock art (screenshot by the author via YouTube/Nature.com)
Taking a sample from the rock art (screenshot by the author via YouTube/Nature.com)
The "pig-deer" and the adjacent hand outline (screenshot by the author via YouTube/Nature.com)
The “pig-deer” and the adjacent hand outline (screenshot by the author via YouTube/Nature.com)

One of the hand stencils is at least 39,900 years old — the oldest known in the world — and a painting of a babirusa “pig-deer” is at least 35,400 years old, aligning it with the same era as the French Chauvet Caves. They’re not far off from the world’s oldest painting as well, a red sphere in Spain created an estimated 40,800 years ago. The rock art has been known about for decades, and most assumed it was not more than 10,000 years old. A new technique of examining the calcium carbonate mineral deposits over the hands and drawings revealed the markings’ true age. As explained in Nature:

Though the paint itself cannot be dated, uranium-thorium dating can estimate the age of the bumpy layers of calcium carbonate (known as “cave popcorn”) that formed on the surface of the paintings. As mineral layers are deposited, they draw in uranium. Because uranium decays into thorium at a known rate, the ratio of uranium to thorium isotopes in a sample indicates how old it is.

It’s an eerie and beautiful feeling to look at the ancient imprint of the hand and see thousands of years of history reaching out to you, and to consider that at about the same time people were creating very similar art is a fascinating development in our human timeline. The researchers note it’s likely artistic traditions were carried out of Africa to these different places. They also hope that the significance of these paintings brings protection to the caves, as mining and encroaching industry threaten to destroy what has survived for so long.

The full article on Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia is available in the journal Nature.

comments (0)