World's 'old­est fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing' dis­cov­ered in Bor­neo cave

The Guardian Australia - - Environment / Science - Ian Sam­ple Sci­ence edi­tor

A patchy, weath­ered paint­ing of a beast daubed on the wall of a lime­stone cave in Bor­neo may be the old­est known ex­am­ple of fig­u­ra­tive rock art, say re­searchers who dated the work.

Faded and frac­tured, the red­dishor­ange image de­picts a plump but slen­der-legged an­i­mal, prob­a­bly a species of wild cat­tle that still lives on the is­land, or sim­ply din­ner in the eyes of the artist, if one streak of ochre that re­sem­bles a spear pro­trud­ing from its flank is any guide.

The an­i­mal is one of a trio of large crea­tures that adorn a wall in the Lubang Jer­iji Saléh cave in the East Kal­i­man­tan prov­ince of In­done­sian Bor­neo. The re­gion’s rock art, which amounts to thou­sands of paint­ings in lime­stone caves, has been stud­ied since 1994 when the images were first spot­ted by the French ex­plorer Luc-Henri Fage.

“It is the old­est fig­u­ra­tive cave paint­ing in the world,” said Maxime Au­bert, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist and geo­chemist at Grif­fith Univer­sity in Queens­land, Aus­tralia. “It’s amaz­ing to see that. It’s an in­ti­mate win­dow into the past.”

Above and be­tween the three beasts are hand sten­cils, the fa­mil­iar cave art call­ing cards of our ancient an­ces­tors. The ghostly mark­ings, which ap­pear sin­gu­larly or in groups, are made by spray­ing ochre paint from the mouth over a hand pressed on to the rock.

The sci­en­tists came up with ages for the paint­ings by dat­ing pop­corn-like cal­cite crusts that of­ten dot the walls of lime­stone caves. The crusts form when rain­wa­ter seeps through the walls. Those un­der­neath a paint­ing give a max­i­mum age for the art­work, while those on top pro­vide a min­i­mum age.

Au­bert’s team found cal­cite crusts near the rear of the painted an­i­mal and used a tech­nique called ura­nium se­ries anal­y­sis to date them to at least 40,000 years old. If the mea­sure­ment is ac­cu­rate the Bor­neo paint­ings may be 4,500 years older than de­pic­tions of an­i­mals that adorn cave walls on the neigh­bour­ing is­land of Su­lawesi.

But there is room for doubt. Writ­ing in the jour­nal Na­ture, the re­searchers con­cede that the crusts they an­a­lysed had formed on top of a heav­ily weath­ered part of the an­i­mal paint­ing and that pig­ment analy­ses could not dis­tin­guish the un­der­ly­ing paint from that of a nearby mul­berry-coloured hand sten­cil.

Cave art in East Kal­i­man­tan can be grouped into three dis­tinct phases. The old­est in­cludes the red­dish-orange hand sten­cils and an­i­mal paint­ings that mostly ap­pear to de­pict Bornean ban­teng, the wild cat­tle still found on the is­land. The next phase con­sists of younger hand sten­cils, in­tri­cate mo­tifs and sym­bols, and de­pic­tions of el­e­gant, thread-like peo­ple, some wear­ing elab­o­rate head­dresses, some ap­par­ently danc­ing, painted in dark pur­ple or mul­berry on the cave walls. In the fi­nal phase are more re­cent paint­ings of peo­ple, boats and geo­met­ric de­signs, all ren­dered in black.

Based on dates gleaned from cal­cite crusts in the Lubang Jer­iji Saléh cave and oth­ers nearby, Au­bert’s team has drawn up a ten­ta­tive time­line for the pro­gres­sion of art in the re­gion. They be­lieve that rock art, which at first fo­cused on large an­i­mal paint­ings, be­gan be­tween 40,000 and 52,000 years ago and lasted un­til 20,000 years ago when the se­cond phase be­gan. “At that time, hu­mans start de­pict­ing the hu­man world,” said Au­bert. Whether the shift was part of the nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion of art, or came with the ar­rival of an­other wave of hu­mans, no-one knows. The fi­nal phase of rock art may have be­gan as re­cently as 4,000 years ago.

The work sug­gests that fig­u­ra­tive art may have emerged in south-east Asia and Europe at about the same time, and re­mained in step when it shifted from de­pict­ing an­i­mals to the hu­man world. At Chau­vet cave in the Ardeche re­gion of France, the walls are cov­ered with char­coal mas­ter­pieces of horses and rhi­nos that are at least 30,000 years old. Rock art it­self goes back much fur­ther, with Ne­an­derthals dec­o­rat­ing cave walls in Spain long be­fore mod­ern hu­mans reached Europe. Ab­stract draw­ing be­gan ear­lier still: in Septem­ber, re­searchers pub­lished de­tails of a 73,000-year-old lump of rock bear­ing an ochre criss-cross de­sign that was un­cov­ered in a cave in South Africa.

Paul Pet­titt, pro­fes­sor of palae­olithic ar­chae­ol­ogy at Durham Univer­sity, said that “at face value” the re­sults point to a sim­i­lar pat­tern for the de­vel­op­ment of art at two ex­tremes of Eura­sia more than 40,000 years ago.

But he is cau­tious about the dat­ing in the lat­est study. “Sadly, this work says more about aca­demic com­pe­ti­tion and the scram­ble for early dates than it does the emer­gence of art,” he said. “I wel­come the im­pres­sive dis­cov­ery and doc­u­men­ta­tion of a ma­jor early art re­gion, but I have con­sid­er­able reser­va­tions about the per­ti­nence of the dated sam­ples to the art be­neath. It is not made clear that the old­est min­i­mum ages are clearly and un­am­bigu­ously re­lated to the fig­u­ra­tive art.”

A paint­ing of wild cat­tle, dated at about 40,000 years old, in a cave in East Kal­i­man­tan,Bor­neo, part of a large panel con­tain­ing at least two other an­i­mals. Pho­to­graph: Pindi Se­ti­awan

Images of wild cat­tle that sci­en­tists havedated to at least 40,000 years old mak­ingthem the world’s old­est know fig­u­ra­tivede­pic­tions. Pho­to­graph: Luc-Henri Fage

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