Year in review: Asian cave art got an early start

Hand stencils revise painting history

Hand stencils found in Indonesia were painted more than 39,000 years ago, researchers determined in 2014. That age makes the cave art nearly as old as Europe’s earliest rock art. 

Kinez Riza

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Ancient cave art went global in 2014. Scientists reported that Stone Age cave painting began at about the same time in Southeast Asia as in Europe. These findings suggest the need to rethink a decades-old conviction that Western Europeans cornered the market on creativity with their cave paintings about 40,000 years ago, millennia before groups elsewhere started drawing on rock walls.

Famous cave paintings in France and Spain were taken down a notch in significance thanks to new dates for a couple of human hand outlines previously discovered inside caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Archaeologists Maxime Aubert and Adam Brumm, both of Griffith University in Southport, Australia, led the effort that dated one Sulawesi hand stencil to at least 39,900 years ago and another to at least 39,400 years ago (SN: 11/15/14, p. 6). Stone Age islanders made those and many other hand stencils by blowing, spraying or spitting liquid pigment around an outstretched hand pressed against a cave wall.

Other examples of Sulawesi cave art include a drawing of a fruit-eating pig called a pig-deer, or babirusa, from at least 35,400 years ago and a portrait of a piglike creature dating to 35,700 years ago or more.

Painted images and symbols appear on cave walls and rock shelters throughout the world. But researchers have had a tough time identifying how long ago various instances of rock art were created. Radiocarbon analyses of bits of paint removed from cave paintings have yielded inconsistent results.

Aubert and Brumm’s team opted for a technique called uranium-series dating. This method estimates the time needed for mineral deposits to form and partially cover some examples of cave art, providing a minimum age for those images. Another team recently used uranium-series dating to show that cave painting began in Western Europe by 40,800 years ago.

If further research confirms that cave art appeared at the same time in Western Europe and Southeast Asia, these practices must have started in Africa before modern humans spread to Europe and Asia 60,000 years ago, Aubert suspects.

More uranium-series dates for Southeast Asian rock art are in the works. Aubert has already scouted caves and rock shelters on Borneo that contain potentially ancient paintings. He plans to do the same in New Guinea. Sulawesi contains more than 100 cave art sites, “and more are discovered every year,” he says.

Bruce Bower

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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