Don’t have a cow art buffs

Ear­li­est ev­i­dence of hu­man art is cave paint­ing of a cow

Woonsocket Call - - SHADES OF GREEN - By SARAH KA­PLAN

Maxime Au­bert can only imag­ine who might have painted the ocher-col­ored crea­ture onto the cave’s lime­stone walls. He can merely spec­u­late about what the im­age may have meant to the per­son who cre­ated it. He’s not even en­tirely cer­tain what kind of an­i­mal it’s sup­posed to be – a wild cow, per­haps?

But of this, he feels sure: The more than 40,000-year-old art in this re­mote cave in In­done­sia – the old­est fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing ever found – rep­re­sents an im­por­tant turn­ing point in hu­man his­tory. It marks a mo­ment when our an­ces­tors started to speak in sym­bols, when peo­ple re­al­ized the power of pic­tures to com­mu­ni­cate their fears, de­sires and dreams.

Pre­vi­ously, the old­est known hu­man-crafted fig­ure was a 40,000-year-old lion’s head sculpted from ivory, which was found in Ger­many. Au­bert and his col­leagues have also de­scribed slightly younger cave paint­ings of an­i­mals at a site on the In­done­sian is­land of Su­lawesi.

Tens of thou­sands of years af­ter they were cre­ated, th­ese faded works by long-dead artists have some­thing im­por­tant to tell us about our­selves. The age of the newly dis­cov­ered an­i­mal art, re­ported Wed­nes­day in the jour­nal Na­ture, sug­gests that peo­ple thou­sands of miles away from each other were un­der­go­ing the same trans­for­ma­tion at the same time.

“Maybe it’s uni­ver­sal,” said Au­bert, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist and geo­chemist at Grif­fith Univer­sity in Aus­tralia. “Art . . . is some­thing that we as hu­mans just do.”

The cow-like crea­ture is among scores of new­found im­ages of hand prints, an­i­mals, peo­ple and geo­met­ric de­signs that adorn a net­work of lime­stone cav­erns in the In­done­sian province of East Kal­i­man­tan, on the is­land of Bor­neo. The im­ages span tens of thou­sands of years of his­tory and ap­pear to rep­re­sent dis­tinct phases in the de­vel­op­ment of art.

The di­verse ar­ray of draw­ings at the Kal­i­man­tan caves makes it an ideal place for ex­plor­ing how art evolved, Au­bert said. “It’s a re­ally spec­tac­u­lar site.”

But reach­ing it re­quires some­thing like a pil­grim­age: a bumpy drive along wind­ing roads, a voy­age by ca­noe, then a four-day hike through rugged moun­tains to a val­ley rimmed by lime­stone ridges.

The en­try­way of the cave is cathe­dral-like, 100 me­ters wide and be­decked with sta­lag­mites and sta­lac­tites. The air there is hu­mid and noisy with the calls of birds.

The old­est paint­ings, etched in red­dish-orange, are found in a low-ceilinged side cham­ber. Most of them are hand sten­cils, a com­mon form of art from hu­man­ity’s early his­tory. They re­mind Au­bert of the prints his tod­dler cre­ates by press­ing into the con­den­sa­tion on glass win­dows on cold morn­ings.

“I don’t know why she does it,” he said. Per­haps it’s an in­stinct; an im­pul­sive way of declar­ing, “I was here.”

Among those sten­cils, the an­i­mal il­lus­tra­tion stands out for its so­phis­ti­ca­tion. It has a rounded belly and four spindly legs, and re­sem­bles the wild cat­tle that are still found in Bor­neo’s forests.

Ra­dio iso­tope dat­ing of a cal­cite crust that cov­ers part of the im­age re­vealed that it is more than 40,000 years old, and pos­si­bly as old as 52,000 years. Even the more re­cent date would make the im­age older than any painted rep­re­sen­ta­tion of an an­i­mal that has been found.

“It’s a fur­ther de­vel­op­ment in paint­ing,” Au­bert said. “Its not sim­ple geo­met­ric de­signs or lines. Some­one made an ef­fort to de­pict an an­i­mal. . . . That in­volves plan­ning ahead what you want to do.”

An­other set of im­ages, which are tinged a darker shade of pur­ple, are roughly 20,000 years younger. Like sim­i­lar cave paint­ings from the same era else­where in the world, th­ese fea­ture peo­ple. Some ap­pear to be danc­ing and wear­ing head­dresses.

“It shows a spir­i­tual world,” Au­bert said. “And the same thing was hap­pen­ing in Europe.”

He doesn’t think th­ese par­al­lels are a co­in­ci­dence. The chang­ing art likely re­flects shifts in the cul­ture of the artists, Au­bert said. Per­haps, 40,000 years ago, hu­man pop­u­la­tions across the globe were grow­ing larger, and sym­bolic art helped them com­mu­ni­cate in th­ese more crowded con­di­tions.

Around 20,000 years ago – the time when cave painters be­gan to de­pict hu­mans – co­in­cides with the peak of the last ice age; the chang­ing cli­mate likely al­tered how peo­ple thought and be­haved.

There’s a great deal more to be learned from the Bor­neo caves, Au­bert said. He es­ti­mated that sci­en­tists have ex­plored only 1 per­cent of the en­tire sys­tem. Next year, re­searchers aim to start ex­ca­vat­ing some of the caves, seek­ing bones and other re­mains that might re­veal who th­ese pre­his­toric artists were.

Luc-Henri Fage pho­tos

Top photo: The worlds old­est fig­u­ra­tive art­work from Bor­neo dated to a min­i­mum of 40,000 years. Above, mul­berry-col­ored hand sten­cils are su­per­im­posed over older red­dish/orange hand sten­cils. The two styles are sep­a­rated in time by at least 20,000 years.

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