In case you missed it, Australian and Indonesian scientists have found the world’s oldest known figurative art: a red silhouette of a bull-like beast on the wall of a cave in Borneo. The cave painting is at least 40,000 years old, slightly older than similar animal drawings found in famous caves in France and Spain.

Until a few years ago, experts believed Europe was where our ancestors started drawing animals and other figures. But the age of the paintings reported on Nov 7 in the journal Nature, along with previous discoveries in Southeast Asia, suggest that cave art appeared in both continents about the same time.

It adds to the mounting view that cave art, one of the most important innovations in human cultural history, did not arise in Europe as long believed but that ice age artists in Southeast Asia played a key role in its development, researchers said.

The new findings also fuel discussions about whether historical or evolutionary events prompted this near-simultaneous “burst of human creativity”, said lead author Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at the Griffith University in Australia’s Gold Coast.

The remote limestone caves in the mountains of East Kalimantan have been known to contain prehistoric rock paintings, drawings and other imagery since the 1990s. To reach them, Aubert and his team used machetes to hack through thick jungle in a verdant corner of the island.

Strapping on miners’ helmets to illuminate the darkness, they walked and crawled through miles of caves decorated with hundreds of ancient designs, looking for artwork that could be dated.

They needed to find specific mineral deposits on the drawings to determine their age with technology that measures decay of the element uranium. “Most of the paintings we actually can’t sample,” said Aubert.

cave art

This image from the book Borneo, Memory Of The Caves shows the world’s oldest figurative art, dated to 40,000 years, in a limestone cave in Borneo. Scientists say the red silhouette of a bull-like beast (upper left) is the oldest known example of animal art. Photo: Luc-Henri Fage/kalimanthrope.com

In 2014, Aubert and his fellow researchers reported on cave art from neighbouring Sulawesi. They dated hand stencils, created by blowing red dye through a tube to capture the outline of a hand pressed against rock, to almost 40,000 years ago.

Now, with the Borneo cave paintings, the scientists are able to construct a rough timeline of how art developed in the area. In addition to the bull, which is about 1.5 metres wide, they dated red- and purple-coloured hand stencils and drawings of human scenes.

The dates obtained from calcium carbonate samples collected from the near-inaccessible cave art provided the first reliable estimates for the approximate time of rock painting production, and were far older than previously thought, Aubert said.

“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,” the associate professor added.

Two other red-orange hand stencils from the same cave have minimum ages of 37,200 years, while a third has a maximum age of 51,800 years, suggesting that a Palaeolithic rock art tradition first appeared on Borneo between 52,000 and 40,000 years ago.

It is around the same time, or slightly earlier, than the earliest-known cave art from Europe attributed to modern humans.

cave art

This photo shows mulberry-coloured hand stencils in a cave in Borneo. This particular style of hand stencil dates to the height of the Last Glacial Maximum 20,000 years ago. Photo: Kinez Riza

Cave art exists from much earlier, but they merely depict symbols, including the oldest probable known rock painting dating back 73,000 years, found near Cape Town in South Africa. After large animal drawings and stencils, “It seems the focus shifted to showing the human world,” Aubert said.

Around 14,000 years ago, cave-dwellers began to regularly sketch human figures doing things like dancing and hunting, often wearing large headdresses. A similar transition in rock art subjects happened in the caves of Europe.

“That’s very cool, from a human point of view,” said Peter Veth, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia, who was not involved in the study. “People adopted similar strategies in different environments as they became more modern.”

Borneo was still connected to mainland Southeast Asia when the first figurative art were made 40,000 years ago – which is also about the time that the first modern humans arrived in Europe. The earliest drawings of animals in the French cave of Chauvet have been dated to 33,500 and 37,000 years ago.

“It now seems that two early cave art provinces arose at a similar time in remote corners of Palaeolithic Eurasia – one in Europe and one in Indonesia at the opposite end of this ice age world,” said Adam Brumm, a Griffith archaeologist involved in the study.

Whether new waves of people migrating from Africa brought cave etchings skills with them, or whether these arts emerged later, remains unclear. Scientists have only a partial record of global rock art.

“Who the ice age artists of Borneo were and what happened to them is a mystery,” according to research co-leader Pindi Setiawan, an Indonesian archaeologist at Bandung Institute of Technology.

The next stage of research in Indonesia will include excavations to learn more about the people who made these paintings. A few sites have already been identified, containing human bones, prehistoric jewellery and remains of small animals.

As for the red bull, its meaning remains another mystery. “We think it wasn’t just food for them – it meant something special,” said Aubert. – AP/dpa