Like Europe, Borneo hosted Stone Age cave artists

Animal figures and hand stencils are as old and complex as rock art found in Spain

cave painting of red animal in Borneo

OLD PAINT A reddish-orange animal, lower left, painted on a cave wall in Borneo dates to at least  40,000 years ago, scientists say.

Luc-Henri Fage

Discoveries on the island of Borneo illustrate that cave art emerged in Southeast Asia as early as in Western Europe, and with comparable complexity, researchers say.

A limestone cave in eastern Borneo features a reddish-orange painting of a horned animal, possibly a type of wild cattle that may have been found on the island at the time. The painting dates to at least 40,000 years ago, concludes a team led by archaeologist Maxime Aubert of Griffith University in Southport, Australia. This creature represents the oldest known example of a painted figure anywhere in the world, the scientists report online November 7 in Nature.

The same cave walls contain two hand outlines framed in reddish orange pigment that were made at least 37,200 years ago and a similar hand stencil with a maximum age of 51,800 years.

Three nearby caves display instances of a second rock art style that appeared around 20,000 years ago, the investigators say. Examples include purple-hued, humanlike figures and hand stencils, some decorated with lines or dots. Painted lines link some hand stencils to others.

Age estimates rest on analyses of uranium in mineral deposits that had formed over and underneath parts of each cave painting. Scientists used known decay rates of radioactive uranium in these deposits to calculate maximum and minimum dates for the paintings.

Aubert’s group previously used this technique, called uranium-series dating, to calculate that people on the nearby Indonesian island of Sulawesi created hand stencils on cave walls nearly 40,000 years ago (SN: 11/15/14, p. 6).

a photo showing painted outlines of human hands on a cave wall
HANDS UP Paint-framed outlines of human hands on the walls of a Borneo cave date to around 20,000 years ago, top, and nearly 40,000 years ago, lower left. Other hand stencils are even older, dating to as early as 51,800 years ago. Kinez Riza

“Cave art could have potentially been exported from Borneo to Sulawesi and all the way to Papua and Australia,” Aubert says. Australian cave paintings of humanlike figures resemble those found on Borneo, he says. But the ages of the Australian finds remain uncertain.

No Southeast Asian cave paintings have been found from when humans first arrived in the region, between 70,000 and 60,000 years ago. At that time and up to the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago, Borneo formed mainland Eurasia’s easternmost tip thanks to lowered sea levels. 

Those first Southeast Asians may have created cave art that hasn’t been discovered, Aubert says. Or, small groups of early colonizers may not have painted on cave walls until their populations expanded, leading to more complex social and ritual behaviors. It’s also possible that another human migration from elsewhere in Asia brought rock art to Borneo roughly 50,000 years ago.

a photo of human figures painted on a cave wall in Borneo
IN LINE Painted human figures found a cave wall in Borneo were created at least 13,600 years ago, researchers conclude.Pindi Setiawan
Whatever the case, “Western European and Southeast Asian cave art seem to first appear at about the same time and with remarkable similarities,” says archaeologist Sue O’Connor of Australian National University in Canberra, who did not participate in the new study.

Other investigators have used the uranium-series technique to date a painted red disk in a Spanish cave to at least 40,800 years ago (SN: 7/28/12, p. 15). Another report this year suggested that Neandertals painted abstract shapes and hand stencils on the walls of several Spanish caves at least 64,800 years ago (SN: 3/17/18, p. 6).   

Aubert’s team has criticized that study, saying the researchers may have unintentionally dated mineral deposits that are much older than the artworks. If so, humans rather than Neandertals could have created the Spanish cave art.

Meanwhile, scientists who conducted the Neandertal cave art study express their own doubts about the reliability of dates for the Borneo paintings. Descriptions of sampled mineral deposits from the Borneo caves leave it unclear whether, for example, Aubert’s group dated the horned animal figure or adjacent paint remnants of some other, unidentified figure, says archaeologist João Zilhão of the University of Barcelona.

Zilhão and Neandertal paper coauthor Paul Pettitt of Durham University in England don’t doubt that cave painting emerged in Southeast Asia at least 40,000 years ago. But they and Aubert’s team disagree about how to collect mineral samples for dating rock art.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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