Cave paintings from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are at least 40,000 years old, according to a study in the scientific journal Nature.
This is similar in age with the oldest known rock art from Europe, long seen as the birthplace of Ice Age cave painting and home to the most sophisticated artworks in early human cultural history.
The findings challenge long-held views about the origins of cave art, one of the most fundamental developments in our evolutionary past, according to Maxime Aubert from Australia’s Griffith University, the dating expert who co-led the study.
“It is often assumed that Europe was the centre of the earliest explosion in human creativity, especially cave art, about 40,000 years ago,” says Aubert.
“But our rock art dates from Sulawesi show that at around the same time on the other side of the world people were making pictures of animals as remarkable as those in the Ice Age caves of France and Spain.”
The prehistoric images are from limestone caves near Maros in southern Sulawesi, a large island east of Borneo.
They consist of stencilled outlines of human hands, made by blowing or spraying paint around hands pressed against rock surfaces, and paintings of primitive fruit-eating pigs called babirusas or pig-deer.
These images were first reported more than half a century ago but no prior attempts have been made to date them.
Using a high-precision method, known as U-series dating, samples from 14 paintings at seven caves were shown to range in age from 39,900 to 17,400 years ago.
The most ancient Sulawesi motif dated by the team, a hand stencil made at least 40,000 years ago, is now the oldest evidence ever discovered of this widespread form of rock art.
A large painting of a female babirusa also yielded a minimum age of 35,400 thousand years, making it one of the earliest known figurative depictions in the world, if not the earliest.
This suggests that the creativity required to produce the life-like portrayals of animals seen in Palaeolithic Europe, such as those from Chauvet and Lascaux, could have particularly deep roots within the human lineage.
“In fact, cave painting and related forms of artistic expression were most likely part of the cultural traditions of the first modern humans to spread out of Africa and into Asia and Australia, long before they reached Europe,’’ said co-author Adam Brumm, also of Griffith University.
There are more than 90 cave art sites in the Maros area, according to Muhammad Ramli and Budianto Hakim, Indonesian co-leaders of the study, and hundreds of individual paintings and stencils, many of which are likely to be tens of thousands of years old.
The local cultural heritage management authority is now implementing a new policy to protect these rock art localities, some of which are already inscribed on the tentative list of World Heritage sites.
Co-author of the paper, Thomas Sutikna, who is completing a PhD at University of Wollongong’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, was part of the Indonesian team which uncovered the new species of tiny human nicknamed the Hobbit ten years ago.
He says this latest finding holds important implications for theories of human evolution.
“Rock art is one of the first indicators of an abstract mind – the onset of being human as we know it,” he says.
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