The Indonesian jungle does not seem like the best environment to preserve works of art, but, as The New York Times reports, for more than 40,000 years, these ochre animal representations have been scampering across cave walls:
Until now, the oldest known human-made figures were ivory sculptures found in Germany. Scientists have estimated that those figurines — of horses, birds and people — were at most 40,000 years old.
Researchers have found older man-made images, but these were abstract patterns, such as crisscrossing lines. The switch to figurative art represented an important shift in how people thought about the world around them — and possibly themselves.
The finding also demonstrates that ancient humans somehow made the creative transition at roughly the same time, in places thousands of miles apart.
“It’s essentially happening at the same time at the opposite ends of the world,” said Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia and a co-author of the report, published in the journal Nature.
Another French cave, called Chauvet, is decorated with drawings of animals that researchers estimate date back as far as 37,000 years.
In 2003, Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany discovered the ivory figurines, which turned out to be far older: up to 40,000 years old.
For years, those sculptures stood out as the oldest figurative artworks on the planet. “It was very lonely for a long time,” said Dr. Conard.
When water trickles down cave walls, it can leave behind a translucent curtain of minerals called a flowstone. If a flowstone contains uranium, it will decay steadily — and at a predictable rate — into thorium.
In 2014, Dr. Aubert and his colleagues dated the age of a flowstone that covered a picture of a pig-like animal called a babirusa in a cave in Sulawesi. They discovered that the image was at least 35,400 years old.
That ancient age stunned Dr. Aubert and his colleagues, and they grew eager to use their method on other cave art. Pindi Setiawan, an archaeologist at Bandung Institute of Technology in Indonesia, invited Dr. Aubert and his colleagues to try it in Borneo.
Dr. Setiawan and Adhi Agus Oktaviana, of the Indonesian National Center for Archaeological Research, had spent years studying drawings in remote mountain caves there.
The earliest art in the caves, the researchers found, were reddish-orange hand outlines and drawings of animals. The oldest of all was covered by a flowstone that formed 40,000 years ago.
That drawing depicts a four-legged animal that Dr. Aubert suspected was a species of wild cattle called a banteng.
Since the 40,000-year-old flowstone covers the banteng image, the artwork must be older than that — and thus the oldest known figurative art on the planet.
It’s hard to say when people first began to make these cave drawings, but one intriguing clue comes from a hand stencil. A flowstone atop it is 23,600 years old, while another underneath is 51,800 years old.
Combining the evidence from this stencil and the banteng image, it’s possible that people started making art in the Borneo caves sometime between 52,000 years ago and 40,000 years ago.