‘Oldest ever figurative painting’ discovered in Borneo
A PAINTING on the walls of a limestone cave in Borneo could be the oldest figurative painting ever discovered.
The faint, red-orange painting depicting an animal that is not readily identifiable, is estimated to be
52 000 years old, dating to 12 000 years before the earliest known examples in Europe.
Until now it had been assumed that figurative cave paintings depicting animals and people originated in western Europe 40 000 years ago, although the earliest abstract art has recently been found dating from 73 000 years ago at the Blombos cave in Stilbaai in the Western Cape.
In a paper published in the journal Nature, Maxime Aubert from Australia’s Griffith University, reveals the painting as one of many on the walls of the caves in remote mountains of East Kalimantan, an area which once joined the Eurasian landmass.
After conducting uranium-series analysis of calcium carbonate deposits that have accreted on top of the painting, the scientists concluded that the minimum age for it was 40 000 years.
This is “currently the oldest date for figurative artwork from anywhere in the world”, the researchers say. As well as many other depictions of animals, possibly wild cows or bison, the caves contain scores of “hand stencils” — art created by placing a hand on the wall and then covering it with pigment, resulting in a negative rendition. Aubert and colleagues dated two such stencils to 37 000 years ago, and a third to potentially as early as 52 000 years ago.
Using dating and visual evidence, the researchers identified three distinct phases in the art styles of the caves, assumed to reflect deep cultural changes over many thousands of years.
Following the red-orange figurative paintings and hand stencils, there followed several thousand years in which the preferred pigment was mulberry-coloured and used to depict intricate motifs (as well as more hand stencils). This period ended somewhere around 20 000 years ago, and was replaced by dark purple depictions of humans.
The antiquity of the early artwork not only shifts the record for the earliest figurative art away from the western world towards the east, but the researchers say that “it is now evident that rock art emerges in Borneo at around the same time as the earliest forms of artistic expression appear in Europe in association with the arrival of modern humans”.
“Thus, similar cave art traditions appear to arise near-contemporaneously in the extreme west and extreme east of Eurasia ...”