Prehistoric art in Borneo cave includes world’s oldest figurative painting

Brittany A. Roston - Nov 7, 2018, 8:00 pm CST
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Prehistoric art in Borneo cave includes world’s oldest figurative painting

Researchers have discovered the world’s oldest known cave painting of an animal, according to a new study. The painting features a creature that looks like a bull and dates back around 40,000 years. Until now, scientists believed the world’s oldest cave paintings were located in Europe, but this newly discovered art was found in Indonesia.

The painting is believed to feature wild cattle that existed in the region during that time period. Other artwork joins it, including thousands of prehistoric human hand stencils that were made at a later date. The markings are described as mulberry-colored and feature “tattoos” on the handprints, plus imagery that incorporates the handprints as vines or branches.

The artwork is located in a remote cave in Borneo, according to the study — it’s not easy to access and presents little evidence of former human habitation apart from the paintings. The cave’s nature and location indicates that humans may have had to work hard to access it, potentially risking injury.

The cave is described as something like a prehistoric art gallery; it may have been reserved for just this artwork. Years have passed since its discovery, but the most recent research involving it sheds light on just how old some of these markings are. The work was done by researchers with Griffith University, the National Research Center for Archaeology in Jakarta, and scientists in Indonesia.

Among the artwork, the study found, a reddish orange painting of a bull-like animal dated back with a minimum age of 40,000 years. That makes this the oldest known figurative drawing on the planet, surpassing other old figurative artwork found in European caves.

Of the aforementioned mulberry paintings, researchers found the oldest examples were between 21,000 and 20,000 years old, while a mulberry human figure painting was a minimum of 13,600 years old. The researchers note a big change in the local rock art dated back around 20,000 years ago.

It’s possible this change was the result of environmental difficulties or migration that spurred societal changes and, with them, new types of artwork. The change happened during the Last Glacial Maximum when the world’s ice age was at its peak. Population numbers in the cave’s region may have increase due to migration caused by this climate.

A few years ago, researchers had found cave artwork of a similar nature in nearby Sulawesi’s Maros caves — that dates back about 40,000 years. Given the Borneo art’s age, researchers say it’s possible the artwork in that region had spread to the nearby Sulawesi and beyond. It’s unclear where modern human rock art first emerged or if it arose independently in multiple regions around the same time, however.


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