A faint drawing of an animal in a Borneo cave has been determined as the world’s oldest example of figurative art.
The painting, on the wall of a limestone cave in East Kalimantan province of Indonesia’s section on the island of Borneo, depicts a cattle-like animal and was made at least 40,000 years ago. It predates artwork found in European caves, and it one of thousands of images found in Borneo. It is significant in that it depicts real-world object instead of spirals or other geometric designs, and provides evidence that attempts art was practiced, tens of thousands of years ago, on opposite ends of Eurasia.
“The art was discovered in the 1990s. We wanted to find out exactly how old it was,” said Maxime Aubert of Australia’s Griffiths University.
Analysis of the calcium layers covering the reddish-orange artwork, a technique done using radiometric dating with uranium to determine its age, established that it is between 40,000 and 51,800 years old, making it the oldest figurative artwork found. A discovery of a painted animal similar to a rhinoceros in France’s Chauvet Cave was determined to be about 35,000 years old and the previous oldest figurative artwork found.
“When we do archaeological digs, we’re lucky if we can find some pieces of bone or stone tools, and usually you find what people have chucked out,” said Aubert, “When you look at the rock art, it’s really an intimate thing. It’s a window into the past, and you can see their lives that they depicted. It’s really like they are talking to us from 40,000 years ago.”
The Indonesian cave paintings were the subject of a revolutionary scholarly paper on the history of the subject by Aubert and his colleagues in 2014.
The paper “made a very big splash, as it showed that cave art was practiced both in Europe and in southeast Asia at about the same time,” archaeologist Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands, told Smithsonian. He added that the research “killed Eurocentric views on early rock art.”