Indonesian cave paintings once presumed to be just a few thousand years old have now been dated back 40,000 years—a discovery which could deepen our understanding of human creativity and art’s origins.
Until now, the oldest known art has come out of Europe, where archaeologists continually uncover sophisticated murals scattered across various parts of the continent. The most ancient painting is a smudged red disk on a cave wall at El Castillo in Spain, at least 41,000 years old. But experts have wondered how humans could have made the leap to such impressive displays of creativity. Symbolic representation wasn’t something we could have acquired overnight. So where were the older, more novice paintings?
The Indonesian depictions of wild animals and human hands, found on the southwest side of the island of Sulawesi, are indeed simpler than the European ones. Some of them (the hard-to-reach ones) are stylistically distinct from anything else in the area, too—which piqued scientists’ interests.
Here’s John Timmer, writing for Ars Technica:
It’s not possible to date these works directly, but the authors got lucky. At some point in the past, mineral-rich water had trickled over the cave wall and evaporated. This left behind mineral deposits commonly called “cave popcorn” (technically, coralloid speleothems). Among the minerals were uranium salts, which allowed the deposits to be dated based on the radioactive decay series. While this doesn’t provide a date for the paintings themselves, it puts a lower limit on their age—they had to have been there already for the minerals to form on top of them.
The dates were astounding. It turns out that the paintings had been created tens of thousands of years before the Austronesians even existed as a distinct culture. One of the stencilled hand images was in place by 40,000 years ago, making it the oldest image of its sort anywhere. Two different animal images are at least 35,000 years old, and the majority of the 15 paintings that were dated were at least 25,000 years old.
A new study , published in Nature, reports these findings and suggests that even though Indonesian and European cultures progressed independently, each may have inherited artistic skill from their common African ancestors. What’s more, the upper limit on the age of these paintings might coincide with the time period during which modern humans settled in the area—giving further weight to the hypothesis that symbolic representation may have developed in the earliest days of humanity’s journey. Timmer again:
There’s a reasonable chance that these groups hadn’t exchanged either genes or cultural developments since modern humans first arrived in the Mideast. If that were the case, the authors argue, then it may be that art was simply something that came along with whatever mental developments caused our ancestors to spread out from Africa in the first place.
Hunting for the origins of art could give us clues about the origins of human language, too, since both are examples of symbolic representation.