Luc-Henri Fage / Nature
Archaeologists exploring caves in Indonesia have discovered a mural that could be the oldest figurative painting ever found.
It shows … a cow. Despite the modest theme, the painting is extraordinary because it is at least 40,000 years old. That makes it thousands of years older than the oldest such paintings in Europe.
The Indonesian painting is one of thousands of drawings and stencils in a tangle of limestone caves located in remote mountains on the eastern edge of the island of Borneo, part of Kalimantan. In the 1990s, archaeologists were in search of cave art.
Archaeologist Maxime Aubert of Griffith University in Australia says that when they showed photos of cave art to the locals, they said, "Oh, yes, we saw that in the caves." "The locals knew the caves from there to harvest bird nests for the Asian market in bird nest soup.
The drawings and paintings contained many hand-made stencils made with one hand against a rock and blown on with liquid ocher – as well as animal and stick figures with headgear and spears. But nobody knew how old they were.
Kinez Riza / Nature
Recently, Aubert used a sophisticated form of dating technology that measures the elements uranium and thorium in the rock beneath the images described in this issue of the journal nature, The result, he says, was "incredible".
The oldest were somewhere between 40,000 and 52,000 years old. And some were clearly representational and "not just … an abstract design," says Aubert.
"It's as if someone decides what he saw, like an animal or another human," he says. "And they did that, they did it on purpose."
The oldest figurative painting was a wild cow with horns that was at least 40,000 years old – thousands of years older than comparable figurative paintings in Europe. Older "artworks" have been found in Europe and Africa, but they are geometric drawings that consist of lines, points, and hash marks. And there are carved figures from Europe and Israel, who are even older.
Pindi Setiawan / Nature
Cave connoisseur Genevieve von Petzinger from the University of Victoria in Canada says the discovery is exciting, but not so surprising.
"I have the feeling that we have been waiting for it now," says von Petzinger, adding that figurative art goes back much further than people thought. "My personal opinion is that our ancestors in Africa already knew everything."
Von Petzinger says she expects archaeologists to find it there or elsewhere if they are looking for the right places.
According to Aubert, the first hand stencils in the Borneo Caves date back more than 50,000 years. He says that until 20,000 years ago, painters kept coming back into the caves and adding new works – an amazing 30,000 years – and that their work became more complicated over time.
Pindi Setiawan / Nature
Cave art literally paints a picture of the world of our ancestors, who can not get old bones or tools, says Aubert.
"They can see things … they did – ritual dances, they wore those headgear, you can see all that," he says. "Rock Art talks to you, it feels like," Yeah, they did it somehow for me, you know. "
And they obviously did it for their families. In a cave, the scientists crawled through a narrow opening in a side chamber. There were more hand stencils inside … but different.
"They go in and you look and there are templates, but they are really small," says Aubert. "They are children."
Maybe prehistoric nursery finger painting.