A figurative painting depicting a wild cow-like animal, found in the 1990s in an almost inaccessible desolate cave in Borneo, date to 40,000 years ago, making it the world’s oldest painting on record, according to a new study published Wednesday (November 7) in the journal Nature.
“It is the oldest figurative cave painting in the world,” said Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at the Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, and also the lead author of the study.
“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,” he said.
“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,” Aubert said.
The researchers are of the opinion that the bovine creature in the painting is a Bornean banteng, a species of wild cattle that still roams the Southeast Asian island.
It is part of the oldest of at least three “chronologically distinct phases,” which also includes hand stencils and paintings of other animals that the researchers say could be the “now-extinct taxa.”
This phase is typified by the reddish-orange color of the artwork – the result of the iron oxide pigment, or ocher, used in creating, both, the figurative artwork as well as the hand stencils.
In the second phase, dark purple, or mulberry, is the hue that characterizes the hand stencils, which are grouped into separate configurations.
The painted lines, dashes, dots and small abstract symbols that many of these hand stencils are filled-in with denote different marks of social identification, including tattoos, while others are interlinked by dark purple lines, forming elaborate motifs resembling trees.
“It looks like there was a transition from depicting the animal world to [depicting] the human world. And it’s interesting because I think we have the same thing in Europe,” Aubert said.
There are also some older reddish-orange hand stencils that the researchers think have been ‘retouched’ with dark purple paint that characterizes this phase; they contain patterns and tree-like motifs.
Phase two also features mulberry-colored paintings of anthropomorphs, which the authors say are “elegant, thread-like human figures” with fancy headgear.
The third and last phase is characterized by rock art depicting geometric shapes, boats, and anthropomorphs, with the dominant color being black.
“We think the first phase of paintings focusing on red large animal paintings and hand stencils started between 40,000 and 52,000 years ago and possible lasted until the [ice age] 20,000 years ago,” Aubert told CNN in an email.
“Then a second phase of rock art developed focusing on depicting the human world. We don’t know if these are from two different groups of humans or if it represents the evolution of a particular culture,” he wrote.
Adam Brumm, an associate professor of archaeology at Griffith University and one of the co-authors of the study says that seemingly, “two early cave art provinces arose at a similar time in remote corners of Paleolithic Eurasia: one in Europe, and one in Indonesia at the opposite end of this ice age world.”
Also, the new study shows that “the earliest art consisted of large animals painted in a remarkably naturalistic style, with emphasis on the musculature and form of the animal’s body,” said professor Susan O’Connor, who wasn’t part of the study.
O’Connor teaches archaeology at the College of Asia & the Pacific at Australian National University.
“The location of these ancient paintings of animals and hand stencils perhaps marks the passage of the first modern humans as they moved through mainland Asia and out into the islands of Wallacea, lying between the mainland and continental Sahul (Australia and New Guinea which were joined at this time),” O’Connor told Live Science in an email. “They may have used art to mark and ‘humanize’ these new and unfamiliar landscapes.”
According to Aubert, “figurative art developed in Southeast Asia at the same time as in Europe,” changing from figurative depictions of large animals to representing the human world.
“It is now evident that rock art emerges in Borneo at around the same time as the earliest forms of artistic expression appear in Europe in association with the arrival of modern humans,” says the study.
“Thus, similar cave art traditions appear to arise near-contemporaneously in the extreme west and extreme east of Eurasia. Whether this is a coincidence, the result of cultural convergence in widely separated regions, large-scale migrations of a distinct Eurasian population or another cause remains unknown,” it further says.
“We are planning archaeological excavation in those caves in order to find more information about these unknown artists,” Aubert said.
“We also want to date more rock art in order to refine the minimum and maximum ages for each styles and also find out how long they lasted.”