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World’s Oldest Art Found in Indonesian Cave
Art And Culture

World’s Oldest Art Found in Indonesian Cave

Artwork in an Indonesian cave has been found to date back at least 40,000 years, making it the oldest sign yet of human creative art — likely pre-dating art from European caves.
The findings, published on October 8 in Nature, a prominent inter-disciplinary scientific journal, undermine a Eurocentric view of the origins of human creativity and could prompt a ‘gold rush’ to find even older art on the route of human migration from Africa to the East. The article hints at “just what a wealth of undiscovered information there is in Asia,” says Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, UK, who in 2013 identified what had been considered the world’s oldest cave art, in Europe2, and had no involvement in the current project. “This paper will likely prompt a hunt.”
The Indonesian images, discovered in a limestone cave on the island of Sulawesi in the 1950s, had previously been thought to date back only 10,000 years. Anything older would, it was assumed, have deteriorated.
The researchers dated 12 stencils of human hands and two images of large animals. Because they sampled the top layer of calcium carbonate, the uranium dating technique gave them a minimum age for each sample.

  Oldest Stencil
They found that the oldest stencil was at least 39,900 years old — 2,000 years older than the minimum age of the oldest European hand stencil. An image of a babirusa, or ‘pig-deer,’ resembling an aubergine with stick-like legs jutting from each end, was estimated to be 35,400 years old — around the same age as the earliest large animal pictures in European caves.
“It allows us to move away from the view that Europe was special,” says Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, who led the team. “There was some idea that early Europeans were more aware of themselves and their surroundings. Now we can say that’s not true.”
Researchers posit two theories for the evolution of such artwork — either it arose independently in Indonesia, or early humans leaving Africa already had the capacity to make art, and carried it to multiple areas.
Pike thinks that researchers should seek evidence of art along the southern migration route. “India is the most obvious place to look,” he says. “I expect we’ll start getting a lot more photos [of images covered in calcium carbonate] from along that corridor from people who want to date them. This may move the field along very rapidly.” Southeast Asia will also be raked over, he predicts. There are hundreds more caves in that region of Sulawesi alone, and Aubert has also started looking in Borneo.
The discovery weakens a much-debated theory that Neanderthals, who were present in Europe until around 41,000 years ago, might have been responsible for the cave art there. “There were no Neanderthals in Sulawesi,” says Pike. But the hand stencils and choice of subject are very similar to the Indonesian figures, he adds.

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