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These cave paintings discovered in Indonesia are as old as any art ever found

Ancient cave art from Indonesia.
Ancient cave art from Indonesia.
(Kinez Riza)

The oldest human artistic creations ever found — cave paintings and ancient carvings — are around 40,000 years old. And, until today, they were all found in Europe — mostly in present-day Spain, Germany, and France.

But a new paper published today in the journal Nature dramatically changes the geographic landscape of our species' earliest artwork. In it, archaeologists dated a series of 14 cave paintings found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and found that one (a stenciled hand) dates to at least 39,900 years ago — making it nearly as old as any art ever found.

What's more, the archaeologists also dated a painting of a pig to at least 35,700 years ago. This makes it older than any other known figurative art (that is, art that represents something else, rather than a simple hand stencil).

"It was previously thought that western Europe was the center of a ‘symbolic explosion’ in early human artistic activity," says Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Australia's University of Wollongong and the study's lead author. "Our discovery on Sulawesi shows that cave art was made at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world at about the same time."

Why is this a big deal? Because the urge to put one's hand up against a cave wall and spray paint simply to make a design — in other words, the desire to make art for its own sake — is one of few human universals, but a trait that seems to have evolved surprisingly recently in our evolutionary history. Until now, it was plausible that the idea of art-making evolved in Europe. Now, it seems more likely that it evolved way back among our common ancestors before they left Africa.

The ancient cave paintings of Indonesia

Nature's video on the discovery

These 14 cave paintings are among many found in the Maros Karsts — a series of caves in southern Sulawesi that are a popular tourist destination. Twelve of them are simple hand stencils (in which the artist held his or her hand up to the wall and sprayed it with an unknown pigment), and two are representations of pigs (one appears to be from a nearly extinct species called babirusas).

The locations of some of the paintings makes it pretty remarkable that people were capable of creating them tens of thousands of years ago. "Some of the rock art occurs in caves that are high up in limestone cliffs and require climbing to reach," Aubert says. "In some cases, the rock art is located in well-lit areas near cave mouths and is easy to spot, whereas sometimes it is hidden away in little nooks and crannies and on high ceilings; in other cases, it was made in complete darkness in narrow passages you have to crawl through to access."

Nevertheless, none of the paintings are newly discovered — they've just been dated for the first time. "The art has been known for decades but no one had tried to date it previously," Aubert says. "It was widely assumed to be prehistoric in age, but comparatively young." Because of the rapid erosion rates in the tropical region — and because other cultural artifacts found nearby had been dated to only around 8,000 years ago — most researchers assumed these paintings had been created around the same time.

Part of the reason they were never actually dated is that, unlike the famous ancient cave paintings found in France's Chauvet Cave, they weren't done with charcoal. This makes conventional dating methods such as radiocarbon dating impossible.

How scientists calculated the paintings' age

cave art 2

One of the animal paintings in the study. (Kinez Riza)

In 2011, co-author Adam Brumm was excavating a nearby cave in the area and found that its surface was covered with small limestone deposits called coralloid speleothems (nicknamed "cave popcorn.") They can be dated using a newer method called uranium-thorium dating.

This method relies on the fact that the traces of uranium inside the popcorn bits decay into thorium at predictable rates over time. As a result, by comparing the ratio of uranium atoms to thorium atoms (and correcting for contamination from other sediments), scientists can figure out the age of the popcorn. And in cases where popcorn has naturally formed on top of paintings, determining its age indicates the minimum age of the artwork.

To make use of the method, the archaeologists spent years searching for ancient cave art in the area that was covered by these bits of popcorn. Eventually, they located the 14 different samples and scraped off tiny pieces of popcorn for analysis. In some cases, the paintings had also been done on top of popcorn, which means a maximum age (as well as a minimum age) for the art could also be calculated.

cave art diagram

An annotated drawing of the oldest cave art in the study, showing a 35,700-year-old pig and a 39,900-year-old hand stencil. (NatureAubert et. al. 2014)

The analysis revealed that the 14 paintings had minimum ages between 17.7 and 39.9 thousand years old — far older than previously thought. The oldest one (a hand stencil) is now the most ancient known hand painting in existence, and is roughly as old as the most ancient painting, period (a red dot, found in Spain, believed to be 40,000 years old). Meanwhile, the 35,700-year-old pig is older than the hyenas and bears painted in France's Chauvet Cave, which are around 35,000 years old, making it the oldest figurative art ever.

There's always a bit of uncertainty with these dating methods — and at some point, older art will likely be found — so the important point here isn't really which painting beat another by a few thousand years and now holds the title of "oldest." The important thing is that these paintings were found thousands of miles away from all the ancient ones we previously knew about, which has big implications for our understanding of the evolution of art.

How did art originally evolve?

cave art 4

One of the hand stencils found. (Kinez Riza)

Because the oldest verified instances of human art had all been found in Europe, some researchers previously assumed that art had simply evolved there, then spread to other parts of the world over time.

This analysis throws this idea into serious doubt. Previously, other researchers had found indirect evidence of similarly old art in places other than Europe (such as worn pigment fragments found in Australia that may be 50,000 years old), but this is the first hard evidence that humans were making art in Asia just as long ago as they were in Europe.

This could be explained in a few different ways. One would be that the concept of art evolved independently in two different places at the same time. Another, more likely one, is that our common ancestors were making art way back when they first left Africa about 100,000 years ago, and evidence of it just hasn't been found yet.

Why is this such an important question? Part of the reason is that nowadays, art is a human universal — something practiced among all cultures — and yet it arrived relatively late in our species' evolutionary history.

In terms of anatomy, our ancestors looked more or less like us as far back as about 250,000 years ago. However, for at least 100,000 years after that, their behavior doesn't seem to have been significantly different from that of other animals.

Then, at some point, our ancestors went through what some researchers call a "creative explosion" — developing art, other elements of culture, and perhaps more sophisticated and coordinated hunting techniques. For whatever reason, these humans decided to put their hands up against cave walls and spray paint, for the simple pleasure of creating a new image. The presence of figurative art, such as the animal paintings, is an especially interesting indicator of abstract thinking — a trait not known to belong to any other animal.

In a sense, this creative explosion is at the root of what makes us so dramatically different from other animal species. And these cave paintings provide an important new clue into when and where this explosion happened.

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