‘Old­est ever fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing’ dis­cov­ered in Bor­neo

The Witness - - NEWS -

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 ...”

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