Asian cave paintings challenge Europe as cradle of art

Asian cave paintings challenge Europe as cradle of art
Hand stencils. Credit: Kinez Riza

Ancient cave drawings in Indonesia are as old as famous prehistoric art in Europe, according to a new study that shows human ancestors were drawing all over the world 40,000 years ago.

And it hints at an even earlier dawn of creativity in modern humans, going back to Africa, than scientists had thought.

Archaeologists calculated that a dozen stencils of hands in mulberry red and two detailed drawings of an animal described as a "pig-deer" are between 35,000 to 40,000 years old, based on levels of decay of the element uranium. That puts the art found in Sulawesi, southeast of Borneo, in the same rough time period as drawings found in Spain and a famous cave in France.

And one of the Indonesian handprints, pegged as at least 39,900 years old, is now the oldest hand stencil known to science, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

These are more than 100 Indonesian cave drawings that have been known since 1950. In 2011, scientists noticed some strange outcroppings—called "cave popcorn"—on the drawings. Those mineral deposits would make it possible to use the new technology of uranium decay dating to figure out how old the art is. So they tested the cave popcorn that had grown over the stencils that would give a minimum age. It was near 40,000 years.

"Whoa, it was not expected," recalled study lead author Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in Australia.

Credit: Nature

Looking at the paintings, the details on the animal drawings are "really, really well-made," Aubert said in a phone interview from Jakarta, Indonesia. "Then when you look at it in context that it's really 40,000 years old, it's amazing."

Paleoanthropologist John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York, who wasn't part of the study, called this an important discovery that changes what science thought about early humans and art.

Before this discovery, experts had a Europe-centric view of how, when and where humans started art, Aubert said. Knowing when art started is important because "it kind of defines us as a species," he said.

Asian cave paintings challenge Europe as cradle of art
Close up on hand stencil. Credit: Kinez Riza

Because the European and Asian art are essentially the same age, it either means art developed separately and simultaneously in different parts of the world or "more likely that when humans left Africa 65,000 years ago they were already evolved with the capacity to make paintings," Aubert said. Ancient art hasn't been found much in Africa because the geology doesn't preserve it.

Shea and others lean toward the earlier art theory.

"What this tells us is that when humans began moving out of Africa they were not all that different from us in terms of their abilities to use art and symbol," Shea said in an email. "Inasmuch as many of us would have difficulty replicating such paintings, they may even have been our superiors in this respect."

Explore further

Archaeologist finds oldest rock art in Australia

More information: Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia, Nature,
Journal information: Nature

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Citation: Asian cave paintings challenge Europe as cradle of art (2014, October 8) retrieved 19 July 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Oct 08, 2014
The statement that knowing when art started is important because "it kind of defines us as a species" reflects the sense of self-importance I have nearly always encountered in those who consider themselves 'artists'.
Coming from the MEST end of the intellectual spectrum, I would suggest that the defining characteristic of 'humans' is that their adaptability to changes extends to the ability to alter their environment to their own advantage. This covers variety in tool use and in habitat contruction.

Oct 08, 2014
Revolutionary, exciting . . . but that doesn't mean we should hate past people who concluded based on the data at hand.

Hopefully, we have more exciting revolutionary archaeological finds! Like today there was also announced bronze age cultures in Spain.

Oct 08, 2014
@ tadchem- Speaking of an intellectual spectrum that precludes art underscores a fallacy about human experience- that intellect and art exist apart. They do not. What you consider to be the defining human characteristics- adaptability and alteration of environments by way of tools and construction- demands first, a motivation for something "better." Notions of "better" and "worse" are in fact, grounded in aesthetics.

Oct 09, 2014
Well, there is evidence that sound generated by cosmic impacts induces brain alterations. 110 Hz can alter thinking from left-logical to right - creative. Possible explanation.

Oct 09, 2014
""it kind of defines us as a species". As does extensive tool use and language, both of which were earlier. This is better seen as an extensive, mutually reinforcing process.

@katesisco: Nonsense.

Oct 11, 2014
Life inherits and acquires physiology. If not the origin, then at least the predecessor of what can be labeled aesthetics.

Motivated by the aesthetic content (beauty?) of Tektrix's reply.
The rating system [here] is grounded in aesthetics too. Questionable or not.
Impressive cave findings.

What are our defining contribution(s) for a species 40,000 years from now?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more