More news stories from the Sulawesi rock art

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40,000 year old rock art from Sulawesi

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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.

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