A fragmentary and weathered painting of a beast plastered on the wall of a limestone cave in Borneo could be the oldest example of rock figurative art, say researchers who have dated the work.
Faded and fractured, the red-orange image depicts a plump but thin-legged animal, probably a species of wild cattle that still lives on the island, or simply a dinner in the eyes of the artist, if one ocher strip that looks like a lance protruding from its side is a guide.
The animal is one of a trio of great creatures adorning a wall in the Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave in the eastern Kalimantan province of Indonesian Borneo. The rock art of the region, which amounts to thousands of limestone cave paintings, has been studied since 1994 when the images were first identified by the French explorer Luc-Henri Fage.
"It is the oldest figurative cave painting in the world," said Maxime Aubert, archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. "It's amazing to see it, it's an intimate window in the past."
Above and among the three beasts there are the hand stencils, the familiar artistic visiting cards of the caverns of our ancient ancestors. Spectral signs, which appear singly or in groups, are made by spraying ocher paint from the mouth above a hand pressed onto the rock.
The scientists invented for the paintings an age dating to calcite crusts similar to popcorn that often punctuate the walls of limestone caves. The crusts are formed when rainwater filters through the walls. Those under a painting give a maximum age for art, while those at the top provide a minimum age.
Aubert's team found calcite crusts near the back of the painted animal and used a technique called uranium series analysis to datarle them for at least 40,000 years. If the measurement is accurate, the paintings of Borneo may be more than 4,500 years old compared to the depictions of animals adorning the walls of the caves in the nearby island of Sulawesi.
But there is room for doubt. Writing in the journal Nature, the researchers admit that the scabs that they analyzed had formed on a strongly altered part of the animal painting and that the analyzes of the pigment were not able to distinguish the underlying paint from that of a stencil of the hands in the colors of the mulberry.
Rock art in eastern Kalimantan can be grouped into three distinct phases. The oldest includes the red-orange hand stencils and animal paintings that seem mostly depicting the Borneo banteng, the wild cattle still found on the island. The next phase consists of younger stencils, intricate motifs and symbols, and portrayals of elegant, thread-like people, some with elaborate headdresses, some apparently dancing, painted in dark purple or mulberry on the walls of the cave. In the final phase are more recent paintings of people, boats and geometric designs, all rendered in black.
Based on dates collected from calcite crusts in the cave of Lubang Jeriji Saléh and others nearby, the Aubert team has developed a provisional timeline for the progression of art in the region. They believe that rock art, which initially focuses on large animal paintings, began between 40,000 and 52,000 years ago and lasted until 20,000 years ago, when the second phase began. "At that time, humans start to portray the human world," said Aubert. If the change was part of the natural evolution of art, or it came with the arrival of another wave of humans, nobody knows. The final phase of rock art could have started up to 4,000 years ago.
The work suggests that figurative art could have emerged in Southeast Asia and Europe at about the same time, and kept pace when moving from painting animals to the human world. In the Chauvet cave, in the French region of Ardèche, the walls are covered with masterpieces of coal and rhinos of at least 30,000 years. The same rock art dates back much further, with the Neanderthals decorating the cave walls in Spain long before modern men reached Europe. The abstract design began earlier: in September, researchers published the details of a 73,000-year-old piece of rock with an ocher-crossed design that was discovered in a cave in South Africa.
Paul Pettitt, professor of paleolithic archeology at the University of Durham, stated that "at face value" the results indicate a similar model for the development of art at two extremes of Eurasia more than 40,000 years ago .
But he is cautious about appointments in the last study. "Sadly, this work says more about academic competition and race on the first dates rather than on the emergence of art," he said. "I welcome the impressive discovery and documentation of a large region of the early art, but I have considerable reservations about the relevance of the samples dated to the underlying art.It is not clear that the oldest minimum ages are clearly and unequivocally related to figurative art. "