According to a new study, a 40,000-year-old painting of a mysterious, wild cow-like beast discovered in a Borneo cave is the oldest human-made drawing of an animal on record.
According to the researchers, the discovery indicates that figurative cave art — one of the most significant innovations in human culture — did not begin in Europe, as many scientists believed, but rather in Southeast Asia during the last ice age.
Drawing animals, while an accomplishment in and of itself, may have served as a springboard for illustrating other aspects of the human experience, such as hunting and dance. “At first, humans painted figurative paintings of large animals, and then they began to depict the human world,” said study co-lead researcher Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in Australia.
The researchers collected calcium-carbonate samples from the cave drawings in Kalimantan in order to perform uranium-series dating, a technique made possible by radioactive decay. Rainwater seeping through limestone dissolves a trace amount of uranium, according to Aubert. When uranium (a radioactive element) decays, it produces thorium. Researchers determined the age of the initial coating by studying the uranium-thorium ratio in the calcium carbonate (limestone) that coats the cave art, he said.
According to Aubert, the oldest figurative art — the mystery animal, which is likely a species of wild cattle that once roamed the jungles of Borneo — is at least 40,000 years old. Previously, the world’s oldest known animal painting was a 35,400-year-old babirusa, or “pig-deer,” on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, he said.
Artwork through the ages
The findings of the team revealed that the ancient artwork in East Kalimantan was created over three distinct periods. The first phase, which dates from 52,000 to 40,000 years ago, includes hand stencils and reddish-orange ochre-drawn animals, mostly banteng (Bos javanicus), a type of wild cattle that still lives in Borneo, and the mysterious, unknown wild cow, according to Aubert.
A major shift in culture occurred around 20,000 years ago during the icy Last Glacial Maximum, resulting in a new style of rock art — one that focused on the human world. According to the researchers, the artists in this phase preferred a dark mulberry-purple color and painted hand stencils, abstract signs, and human-like figures wearing elaborate headdresses and engaging in various activities such as hunting or ritualistic dancing.
“We don’t know if these [various types of cave art] are from two different groups of humans or if they represent the evolution of a specific culture,” Aubert explained. “We intend to conduct archaeological excavations in those caves in order to learn more about these unknown artists.”
According to the researchers, the final phase of rock art includes humanlike figures, boats, and geometric designs that were mostly drawn with black pigments. This type of art is found throughout Indonesia and may have originated with Asian Neolithic farmers who moved into the region around 4,000 years ago or more recently, according to the researchers.
Borneo (Earth’s third-largest island) was on the easternmost edge of Eurasia during the last ice age.
“It now appears that two early cave art provinces arose at the same time in remote corners of Paleolithic Eurasia: one in Europe, and one at the opposite end of this ice age world,” said study co-researcher Adam Brumm, an associate professor of archaeology at Griffith University, in a statement.
According to Aubert, rock art may have spread from Eurasia to Sulawesi, where the babirusa drawing is found, before colonizing humans spread it further to places like Australia.
The new discovery adds to the evidence that “the earliest art consisted of large animals painted in a remarkably naturalistic style, with emphasis on the musculature and form of the animal’s body,” according to Susan O’Connor, an archaeology professor at Australian National University who was not involved in the research.
“The location of these ancient paintings of animals and hand stencils may mark the passage of the first modern humans as they moved through mainland Asia and out into the islands of Wallacea, lying between the mainland and continental Sahul (Australia and New Guinea, which were joined at this time,” O’Connor explained in an email to Live Science. “Art could have been used to mark and ‘humanize’ these new and unfamiliar landscapes.”
The newly discovered cave art fits the emerging picture of early humans. “Once they spread out across Eurasia, they developed, after about 40,000 years ago, the desire (or ability) to produce figurative art,” Christopher Henshilwood, director of the Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour at the University of Bergen in Norway, who wasn’t involved with the study, told Live Science in an email. “This discovery in Indonesia adds to our understanding of the evolution of figurative art, possibly first in Asia, then in Europe and Africa.” (According to Henshilwood, Africa’s oldest figurative art dates back about 30,000 years to the Apollo 11 Cave in Namibia.)