Cave Art in the Tropics
Hand stencils and paintings of animals found in caves in Indonesia are among the oldest in the world – at least as old as similar artwork in Europe. Maxime Aubert shows Nature Video the Indonesian cave paintings and explains how he dated them.
In this Nature Video, we explore a cave in Indonesia that's home to some of the oldest paintings in the world. The hand stencils and paintings of animals were created between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago – making them at least as old as similar artwork in Europe.
- World's oldest art found in Indonesian cave
Analysis of images discovered in 1950s counters Eurocentric view of creativity's origins.
Nature 08 October 2014 doi:10.1038/nature.2014.16100
Read the related News & Views article.
(*) Archaeology: Art on the move
Nature 514, 170–171 (09 October 2014) doi:10.1038/514170a
Studies of stencils and paintings from prehistoric caves in Indonesia date the art to at least 39,900 years ago — around the same age as the earliest cave art previously known, 13,000 kilometres away in western Europe. See Letter p.223 (1)
1. Aubert, M. et al. Nature 514, 223–227 (2014).
Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia
Nature 514, 223–227 (09 October 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13422
Editor's Summary in Nature
New dating results challenge the traditional view that western Europe was the centre of a crucial stage in the evolution of modern human intelligence and culture — based largely on the emergence of figurative or representational art in cave paintings and sculptures around 40,000 years ago. Dating data from a series of hand stencils and paintings of wild animals from caves in the Maros karst in Sulawesi, Indonesia, suggest that figurative art appeared at more or less the same time at opposite ends of the Late Pleistocene world. Or was cave painting practised by the first Homo sapiens to leave Africa tens of thousands of years earlier?
Archaeologists have long been puzzled by the appearance in Europe ~40–35 thousand years (kyr) ago of a rich corpus of sophisticated artworks, including parietal art (that is, paintings, drawings and engravings on immobile rock surfaces) and portable art (for example, carved figurines), and the absence or scarcity of equivalent, well-dated evidence elsewhere, especially along early human migration routes in South Asia and the Far East, including Wallacea and Australia, where modern humans (Homo sapiens) were established by 50 kyr ago. Here, using uranium-series dating of coralloid speleothems directly associated with 12 human hand stencils and two figurative animal depictions from seven cave sites in the Maros karsts of Sulawesi, we show that rock art traditions on this Indonesian island are at least compatible in age with the oldest European art11. The earliest dated image from Maros, with a minimum age of 39.9 kyr, is now the oldest known hand stencil in the world. In addition, a painting of a babirusa (‘pig-deer’) made at least 35.4 kyr ago is among the earliest dated figurative depictions worldwide, if not the earliest one. Among the implications, it can now be demonstrated that humans were producing rock art by ~40 kyr ago at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world.
2. Pike, A. W. G. et al. Science 336, 1409–1413 (2012).
U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain
Science 15 June 2012: Vol. 336 no. 6087 pp. 1409-1413 DOI: 10.1126/science.1219957
Paleolithic cave art is an exceptional archive of early human symbolic behavior, but because obtaining reliable dates has been difficult, its chronology is still poorly understood after more than a century of study. We present uranium-series disequilibrium dates of calcite deposits overlying or underlying art found in 11 caves, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo, and Tito Bustillo, Spain. The results demonstrate that the tradition of decorating caves extends back at least to the Early Aurignacian period, with minimum ages of 40.8 thousand years for a red disk, 37.3 thousand years for a hand stencil, and 35.6 thousand years for a claviform-like symbol. These minimum ages reveal either that cave art was a part of the cultural repertoire of the first anatomically modern humans in Europe or that perhaps Neandertals also engaged in painting caves.