40,000 year old rock art from Sulawesi

Hand stencil from Borneo

I’ve been waiting excitedly for this paper to be published! A new paper out in Nature presents new rock art dates from hand stencils in Sulawesi, with a whopper of a date: 40,000 years old! For those keeping score, that’s as old as the Palaeolithic rock art in Europe. These dates were derived using uranium-series dating, which is a method for dating calcium carbonate and thus a great way for dating rock art in limestone contexts where there’s mineral accretions over paintings.

Personally, the age of the dates isn’t all that surprising – having worked at a number of rock art sites in SEA one gets the impression that some of them are really old. There aren’t many dates for rock art in Southeast Asia because rock art is quite hard to date in of itself. But the few attempts to date rock art in SEA tend to suggest that some rock art is very old indeed: another u-series rock art from East Timor dates to no later than 6,300 years old (with a possible earlier layer of about 22,000 years). On the mainland we have estimates of rock art ages from associated finds at Padalin Caves that go back to 7,000 – 13,000 years.

For me, the big significance of this date is that this is a rock art site in Sulawesi, in Island Southeast Asia. This suggests that some rock art in Mainland Southeast Asia would be of comparable age, if not older: in the paper the authors suggest that “it is possible that an extensive
archive of rock art may yet survive from the initial modern human colonization of Australia and Southeast Asia”. I hope this paper also starts to upend a lot of the Eurocentrism inherent in world rock art literature – the painted caves of France and Spain are majestic and old, to be sure, but there are other old corpuses of art out there that need to be studied further. The rock art from Sulawesi is not a new discovery – its existence has been known for decades, but the new age determination adds a whole new dimension to the field.  Congrats to Max Aubert and team for this great paper!

Hand stencil from Borneo
Hand stencil from Borneo

Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Nature, doi 10.1038/nature13422.
Aubert, M., Brumm, A., Ramli, M., Sutikna, T,. Saptomo, E. W., Hakim, B, Morwood, M. J., D. van
den Bergh. G., Kinsley, L., Dosseto. A.

40,000 year old rock art found in Indonesia
The Conversation, 09 October 2014

Ancient Indonesian rock art rewrites art history
ABC News, 09 October 2014

World’s oldest art found in Indonesian cave
Nature News, 08 October 2014

Indonesian Cave Paintings As Old As Europe’s Ancient Art
NPR, 08 October 2014

Cave paintings change ideas about the origin of art
BBC NEws, 08 October 2014

First-Known Painting Depicts Rare, Hefty Animal
Discover News, 08 October 2014

Prehistoric paintings suggest Indonesians began making art 40,000 years ago
Reuters, via Raw Story, 08 October 2014

Prehistoric Paintings in Indonesia May Be Oldest Cave Art Ever
Live Science, 08 October 2014

Indonesian cave art may be world’s oldest
Science News, 08 October 2014

Indonesian cave art: oldest hand ‘stencil’ yet discovered
Christian Science Monitor, 08 October 2014

Cave Paintings in Indonesia Redraw Picture of Earliest Art
National Geographic News, 08 October 2014

Prehistoric Cave Art Discovered in the Tropics
Discover, 08 October 2014

Archaeologists have long been puzzled by the appearance in Europe 40–35 thousand years (kyr) ago of a rich corpus of sophisticated artworks, including parietal art (that is, paintings, drawings and engravings on immobile rock surfaces) and portable art (for example, carved figurines) and the absence or scarcity of equivalent, well-dated evidence elsewhere, especially along early human migration routes in South Asia and the Far East, including Wallacea and Australia where modern humans (Homo sapiens) were established by 50 kyr ago. Here, using uranium-series dating of coralloid speleothems directly associated with 12 human hand stencils and two figurative animal depictions from seven cave sites in the Maros karsts of Sulawesi, we show that rock art traditions on this Indonesian island are at least compatible in age with the oldest European art.The earliest
dated image from Maros, with a minimum age of 39.9 kyr, is now the oldest known hand stencil in the world. In addition, a painting of a babirusa (‘pig-deer’) made at least 35.4 kyr ago is among the earliest dated figurative depictions worldwide, if not the earliest one.Among the implications, it can now be demonstrated that humans were producing rock art by 40 kyr ago at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world.

Link to paper here.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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