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Archaeology: Borneo cave art reveals oldest figurative painting


November 8, 2018

The world’s earliest-known figurative painting is identified in a paper published online this week in Nature. The cave painting, from Borneo, depicts an indeterminate animal and dates back to at least 40,000 years ago.

The limestone caves of Borneo’s East Kalimantan province contain thousands of rock art images, grouped into three phases: red-orange paintings of animals (mainly wild cattle) and hand stencils; younger, mulberry-coloured hand stencils and intricate motifs, alongside depictions of humans; and a final phase of human figures, boats and geometric designs in black pigment. However, the exact timing of these works had been unclear.

Maxime Aubert and colleagues studied a large, red-orange coloured painting of an indeterminate animal in the Lubang Jeriji Saleh cave. Using a uranium-series analysis, the authors date the limestone crusts that have grown over the art. They determine a minimum age for the underlying painting of 40,000 years, making it the oldest-known figurative depiction.

Two other red-orange hand stencils from the same cave have minimum ages of 37,200 years, and a third had a maximum age of 51,800 years old. From these timings, the authors conclude that rock art locally developed in Borneo between around 52,000 and 40,000 years ago, at roughly the same time as the earliest known art from Europe attributed to modern humans. They additionally date several paintings from the mulberry-coloured art phase to between 21,000-20,000 years ago. This later phase is evidence for a cultural change from depicting large animals to consistently representing the human world.

doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0679-9

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