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40,000-Year-Old Indonesian Cave Art Found to Rival Europe Images

Ancient Indonesians decorated caves with images of their hands and primitive animals at least 40,000 years ago, according to a finding that places the art’s emergence in the same era as vaunted images found in Europe.

The lack of early rock art outside of Europe has long baffled archaeologists, particularly since the first modern humans emerged from Africa and migrated first to South Asia and the Far East, according to the paper released today in the journal Nature. The findings challenge Europe’s status as the birthplace of cave art, where until now the oldest known painting was of a red disk found at El Castillo in Spain.

Researchers found paintings of 12 human hands and two fruit-eating pigs known as babirusas in seven caves in Sulawesi, a large island east of Borneo. The scientists, from Indonesia and Australia, dated uranium from mineral crusts known as “cave popcorn” that formed on top of the paintings 17,400 to 39,900 years ago.

“It is often assumed that Europe was the center of the earliest explosion in human creativity, especially cave art, about 40,000 years ago,” said Maxime Aubert, the lead author and a senior research fellow from Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. “Our rock art dates from Sulawesi show that at around the same time on the other side of the world people were making pictures of animals as remarkable as those in the Ice Age caves of France and Spain.”

Photographer: Kinez Riza, Nature Magazine/AP Photo

It’s unknown if additional cave art will be found in Indonesia or elsewhere, though there are 90 other sites in the Maros area of southern Sulawesi alone, said Muhammad Ramli and Budianto Hakim, senior researchers from the Archaeological Heritage Preservation Institute in Makassar, Indonesia.

Early Art

“Rock art might have emerged independently at about the same time in early modern human populations in Europe and Southeast Asia, or it might have been widely practiced by the first modern humans to leave Africa tens of thousands of years earlier,” said Thomas Sutikna, an author of the paper and a Ph.D. student at the University of Wollongong’s Center for Archaeological Science.

The hand stencils, formed by blowing paint around hands pressed to the cave’s limestone surface, and early animals show that humans were producing art on opposite ends of the world during thePleistocene era, the researchers said. The earliest image from Indonesia is now the oldest known hand stencil in the world, while the pigs are among the earliest figurative images.

“Rock art is one of the first indicators of an abstract mind, the onset of being human as we know it,” Sutikna said.

Anthony Dosseto, director of the University of Wollongong’s isotope geochronology laboratory, said the findings mean Europeans have to share their status.

“European’s can’t exclusively claim to be the first to develop an abstract mind anymore,” he said. “They need to share this, at least, with the early inhabitants of Indonesia.”