Cave Paintings: change ideas about the origin of art
Scientists have identified some of the earliest cave paintings
produced by humans.
The artworks are in a rural area on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi.
Until now, paintings this old had been confirmed in caves only in
Researchers said that the Indonesian discovery transforms ideas about
how humans first developed the ability to produce art.
Australian and Indonesian scientists have dated layers of
stalactite-like growths that have formed over coloured outlines of human
Early artists made them by carefully blowing paint around hands that
were pressed tightly against the cave walls and ceilings. The oldest is
at least 40,000 years old.
There are also human figures, and pictures of wild hoofed animals
that are found only on the island. Dr Maxime Aubert, of Griffith
University in Queensland, Australia, who dated the paintings found in
Maros in Southern Sulawesi, explained that one of them (shown below) was
probably the earliest of its type.
"The minimum age for (the outline of the hand) is 39,900 years old,
which makes it the oldest hand stencil in the world," said Dr Aubert.
"Next to it is a pig that has a minimum age of 35,400 years old, and
this is one of the oldest figurative depictions in the world, if not the
oldest one," he told BBC News.
There are also paintings in the caves that are around 27,000 years
old, which means that the inhabitants were painting for at least 13,000
In addition, there are paintings in a cave in the regency of Bone,
100 km north of Maros. These cannot be dated because the stalactite-like
growths used to determine the age of the art do not occur. But
researchers believe that they are probably the same age as the paintings
in Maros because they are stylistically identical.
The discovery of the Indonesian cave art is important because it
shows the beginnings of human intelligence as we understand it.
Art and the ability to think of abstract concepts is what
distinguishes our species from other animals - capabilities that also
led us to use fire, develop the wheel and come up with the other
technologies that have made our kind so successful.
Its emergence, therefore, marks one of the key moments when our
species became truly human.
The dating of the art in Sulawesi will mean that ideas about when and
where this pivotal moment in our evolution occurred will now have to be
For decades, the only evidence of ancient cave art was in Spain and
southern France. It led some to believe that the creative explosion that
led to the art and science we know today began in Europe.
But the discovery of paintings of a similar age in Indonesia shatters
this view, according to Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History
Museum in London.
"It is a really important find; it enables us to get away from this
Euro-centric view of a creative explosion that was special to Europe and
did not develop in other parts of the world until much later," he said.
The discovery of the 40,000-year-old cave paintings at opposite ends
of the globe suggests that the ability to create representational art
had its origins further back in time in Africa, before modern humans
spread across the rest of the world.
"That's kind of my gut feeling," says Prof Stringer. "The basis for
this art was there 60,000 years ago; it may even have been there in
Africa before 60,000 years ago and it spread with modern humans".
Dr Adam Brumm, who is the co-leader of the Sulawesi research,
believes many well-known sites in Asia, and as far away as Australia,
contain art that is extremely old but which has not yet been accurately
"If Sulawesi is anything to go by, where cave art was first recorded
over half a century ago but was assumed to be young, a crucial part of
the human story could be right under our noses" he said.
Dr Muhammad Ramli, an archaeologist working with the Makassar branch
of Indonesia's Preservation for Heritage Office, said that the
Sulawesian paintings in Maros were being eroded by the pollution coming
from an upsurge in local industrial activities.
"In the beginning of the 1980s, there were a lot of cave paintings on
this site in the form of hand stencils, as you can see right now.
Presently, a lot has been damaged. "There is a strong necessity to
conduct conservation studies to find the best way of preserving these
sites so that the paintings may last," he said.
- BBC News