Tucked away in a secluded cave buried in the inaccessible rainforests of Borneo, Indonesia, a series of rock paintings help archaeologists and anthropologists rewrite the history of artistic expression. Scientists discovered that aspiring painters were among the first to decorate stone walls with images of the ancient world they inhabit.
The oldest painting in the Lubang-Jeriji-Saléh Cave on Borneo, the world's third largest island, is a large, wild cattle-like animal whose relatives may still be roaming the local forests. The number was dated to 40,000 years and possibly older and possibly created about 51
These estimates, which were recently calculated using radiometric dating, make the painting possibly the oldest known example of figurative cave art – images that represent this represent objects from the real world as opposed to abstract designs. The figures also provide more evidence that an artistic heyday of our ancestors has taken place simultaneously on opposite ends of the vast Eurasian continent.
Hundreds of ancient images, from abstract sketches to hand-made stencils to animals and human figures, have been documented in Indonesian Borneo's remote caves since scientists became aware of them in the mid-1990s. But like other signs of ancient human habitation in this part of the world, they are rarely seen or studied. Borneo's Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat Peninsula is a land of ascending limestone towers and cliffs criss-crossed by dense tropical forests that make traveling difficult and have hidden local secrets for thousands of years. "src =" https://public-media.smithsonianmag.com/filer/3c/e2/3ce214b4-1033-481f-89e7-b57d797b9bb3/in-the-middle-tutunambo.jpg "style =" max-height: 2592px ; "/>
Maxith Aubert, archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia, says the effort to study the cave paintings has paid off, not least because of the unique connection to which one manages here feels the distant past.
"When we do archaeological digs, we're lucky to find some bone or stone tools, and usually you find what people threw out," says Aubert, the lead author of a new study detailing the Borneo paintings. "If you look at rock art, it's really an intimate thing. It's a window into the past, and you can see their life that they have portrayed. It's really like talking to us 40,000 years ago. "
The dating of this ancient Southeast Asian cave art represents a new chapter in the evolving history of where and when our ancestors began to paint their impressions of the outside world. A painted rhinoceros in the French Chauvet Cave was until recently the oldest known example of figurative cave art, which was around 35,000 to 39,000 years old. Chauvet and several other sites let scientists believe that the emergence of such advanced painting has taken place in Europe. But in 2014, Aubert and colleagues announced that on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, cave art had been found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi on the other side of the world, which featured stenciled handprints and a large porcine animal from the same period.
"The 2014 newspaper in Sulawesi caused quite a stir when it was shown that cave art was practiced in Europe and Southeast Asia at about the same time," says Palaeolithic archaeologist Wil Roebroeks in an e-mail. Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands added that Aubert's team research killed "Eurocentric views on early rock art".
The Borneo compliment complements this earlier work and expands an increasingly broad and fascinating worldview of ancient art – one with many new questions as answers.
Aubert and his colleagues were able to determine when Borneo's ancient artists practiced their profession by knowing calcite crusts ("Cave Popcorn"), which were slowly produced by the penetrating water. The team dated these deposits by measuring the amount of uranium and thorium in the samples. Because uranium breaks down into thorium at a known rate, you can use Urania Series analysis to calculate the age of a sample. And because the images fall under these crusts, the researchers conclude that they need to be older than the calcareous deposits. Indonesia's National Research Center for Archeology (ARKENAS) and the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) also contributed to the study published today Nature
Although the urandatation designates these figures as the oldest known example of such art in the world, Aubert is even more interested in the striking similarities between the Borneo-cave art styles and the found throughout Europe. In fact, two styles of painting found in Lubang Jeriji Saléh's Indonesian cave, which were superimposed by peoples who visited the same cave at intervals of perhaps 20,000 years, appear equally equidistant in Western Europe.
The first style, which began 52,000 to 40,000 years ago, uses red and orange tones as well as hand-made stencils and paintings of large animals living in the area. A second pronounced style appeared about 20,000 years ago. It uses purple or mulberry colors and its hand stencils, sometimes connected by ramified lines, are decorated with interior decorations.
13,600 years ago, the cave art of the Borneo had undergone another significant development – it began to represent the human world. "We see little human figures. They wear headgear, sometimes dancing or hunting, and it's just unbelievable, "says Aubert.
"It's more about a pattern that we can see now. We really have old paintings in Europe and Southeast Asia, and they not only appeared on the other sides of the world at the same time, but they also seem to evolve on the other sides of the world at the same time, "says Aubert. "The second pronounced style appeared around the time of the last glacial maximum and could even refer to the climate. We just do not know. "
Rock art painters could have evolved in more than one place at the same time, Roebroeks suggests. Alternatively, he wrote in 2014 Nature rock art could be "an integral part of the cultural repertoire of modern man's colonization from Western Europe to Southeast Asia and beyond."
I can only speculate about the more or less simultaneous "emergence" of rock art in Western Eurasia and, to the other extreme, the spread of modern humans, Insular South East Asia, "says Roebroeks The component of modern human culture from the beginning seems to be most closely followed by Durham University archaeologist Paul Pettitt. He claims that a wealth of evidence supports the interpretation that non-figurative art developed in Africa 75,000 years ago or earlier.
This might have led to adorning the body with certain meanings, "he says in an e-mail," and included shell jewelery from the north and south of the continent as early as 100,000 years ago. "Expressions" had evolved to include the use of red ocher and engraved characters on ocher-containing lumps and stones of 75,000 [years ago] and the ornament of ostrich-shell water containers of 65,000. If we assume that this repertoire has left Africa with some of the earliest spreads of Homo sapiens perhaps on their bodies, this could explain the perseverance of an art form that emerged at least 40,000 years ago. It extended out of the body and things that were closely related to him to overcome cave and rock walls, "he says.
But even if we could understand the entire history of early human art, we still lack an even bigger picture.
A study from 2018 describes the Spanish rock art so ancient that it would have been established more than 20,000 years before the arrival of modern man in the region – which means that the artists were Neanderthals. Although the dots, lines, and hand stencils are not the same kind of figurative art found in Borneo or Chauvet, the images suggest that artistic expression was part of the Neanderthal toolkit at least 64,000 years ago.
Roebroeks warns that scientists should be reluctant to conclude that certain times or places are key to the emergence of a particular cultural behavior, simply because there is no evidence in other eras or locales. As the surprisingly ancient data recently attributed to Neanderthal rock art or the emergence of Pleistocene rock art outside Europe in Indonesia suggests, these assumptions are often based on the lack of comparable phenomena in adjacent areas or periods.
Because we did not find them, that does not mean that they do not exist. "One of the lessons we can learn from the studies of Aubert and his colleagues on rock art from Sulawesi and now Borneo is that such reasoning can have serious shortcomings."
Prehistoric art may have originated in the distant past, but the future will likely bring with it surprising discoveries that further change our view of human artistic expression tens of thousands of years after the color has dried.