Old­est known an­i­mal draw­ing found in cave

Sci­en­tists have found the old­est known ex­am­ple of an an­i­mal draw­ing on the wall of a re­mote cave.

The Morning Journal (Lorain, OH) - - FRONT PAGE - By Christina Lar­son

WASH­ING­TON >> Sci­en­tists have found the old­est known ex­am­ple of an an­i­mal draw­ing: a red sil­hou­ette of a bul­l­like beast on the wall of a re­mote In­done­sian cave.

The sketch is at least 40,000 years old, slightly older than sim­i­lar an­i­mal paint­ings found in fa­mous caves in France and Spain. Un­til a few years ago, ex­perts be­lieved Europe was where our an­ces­tors started draw­ing an­i­mals and other fig­ures.

But the age of the draw­ing re­ported Wed­nes­day in the jour­nal Na­ture, along with pre­vi­ous dis­cov­er­ies in South­east Asia, sug­gest that fig­u­ra­tive draw­ing ap­peared in both con­ti­nents about the same time.

The new find­ings fuel dis­cus­sions about whether his­tor­i­cal or evo­lu­tion­ary events prompted this near-si­mul­ta­ne­ous “burst of hu­man cre­ativ­ity,” said lead author Maxime Au­bert, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist and geo­chemist at Grif­fith Univer­sity in Aus­tralia.

The re­mote lime­stones caves on Bor­neo have been known to con­tain pre­his­toric draw­ings since the 1990s. To reach them, Au­bert and his team used ma­chetes to hack through thick jun­gle in a ver­dant cor­ner of the is­land.

Strap­ping on min­ers’ hel­mets to il­lu­mi­nate the dark­ness, they walked and crawled through miles of caves dec­o­rated with hun­dreds of an­cient de­signs, look­ing for art­work that could be dated. They needed to find spe­cific min­eral de­posits on the draw­ings in or­der to de­ter­mine their age with tech­nol­ogy that mea­sures de­cay of the el­e­ment ura­nium.

“Most of the paint­ings we ac­tu­ally can’t sam­ple,” said Au­bert.

Au­bert and his fel­low re­searchers re­ported in 2014 on cave art from the neigh­bor­ing In­done­sian is­land of Su­lawesi. They dated hand sten­cils, cre­ated by blow­ing red dye through a tube to cap­ture the out­line of a hand pressed against rock, to al­most 40,000 years ago.

Now, with the Bor­neo cave art, the sci­en­tists are able to con­struct a rough time­line of how art de­vel­oped in the area. In ad­di­tion to the bull, which is about 5 feet (1.5 me­ters) wide, they dated redand pur­ple-col­ored hand sten­cils and cave paint­ings of hu­man scenes.

Af­ter large an­i­mal draw­ings and sten­cils, “It seems the fo­cus shifted to show­ing the hu­man world,” Au­bert said.

Around 14,000 years ago, the cave-dwellers be­gan to reg­u­larly sketch hu­man fig­ures do­ing things like danc­ing and hunt­ing, of­ten wear­ing large head­dresses. A sim­i­lar tran­si­tion in rock art sub­jects hap­pened in the caves of Europe.

“That’s very cool, from a hu­man point of view,” said Peter Veth, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Western Aus­tralia, who was not in­volved in the study. “Peo­ple adopted sim­i­lar strate­gies in dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments as they be­came more mod­ern.”

The is­land of Bor­neo was still con­nected to main­land South­east Asia when the first fig­u­ra­tive draw­ings were made about 40,000 years ago — which is also about the time that the first mod­ern hu­mans ar­rived in Europe. The ear­li­est draw­ings of an­i­mals in the French cave of Chau­vet have been dated to about 33,500 to 37,000 years ago.

Whether new waves of peo­ple mi­grat­ing from Africa brought the skills of fig­u­ra­tive cave paint­ing with them, or whether these arts emerged later, re­mains un­clear. Sci­en­tists have only a par­tial record of global rock art. The ear­li­est cave etch­ings have been found in Africa and in­clude ab­stract de­signs, like crosshatches, dat­ing to around 73,000 years ago.

The next stage of re­search in In­done­sia will in­clude ex­ca­va­tions to learn more about the peo­ple who made these paint­ings. A few sites have al­ready been iden­ti­fied, con­tain­ing hu­man bones, pre­his­toric jew­elry and re­mains of small an­i­mals.

As for the red bull, its mean­ing re­mains a mys­tery.

“We think it wasn’t just food for them — it meant some­thing spe­cial,” said Au­bert.


This com­pos­ite image from the book “Bor­neo, Me­mory of the Caves” shows the world’s old­est fig­u­ra­tive art­work dated to a min­i­mum of 40,000 years, in a lime­stone cave in the In­done­sian part of the is­land of Bor­neo. Sci­en­tists say the red sil­hou­ette of a bull-like beast, up­per left, is the old­est known ex­am­ple of an­i­mal art.

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