Images of wild cattle and hand stencils discovered in a remote cave in Borneo I have been born to 40,000 and 52,000 years ago, making them the earliest known examples of figurative art, archeologists reported Wednesday in Nature.
Western Europe is usually thought of as the cradle of prehistoric art, thanks to the spectacular paintings and figurines found in Stone Age caves in France and Germany. People in Southeast Asia came up with strikingly similar ideas before their European brethren, researchers reported
The study helps rebalance to euro-centric bent in pinpointing where these stages of our evolution occurred. It also raises the question of how and why one of the characteristics that we consider unique to human beings, figurative art, apparently arose not once but twice, at the opposite ends of what was then the inhabited world.
Bantengs and pig-deers
The researchers trudged for weeks through the jungle of East Kalimantan, a province of Indonesian Borneo, to study prehistoric paintings made in the limestone caves in the region. There are thousands of images, spread across at least 52 sites, that have been documented since the 1990s, but had not been dated dated until now.
Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia. The researchers will be able to see the speleothems, the deposits of calcium carbonate left by water.
In lucky cases, these accretions are covered by a painting, giving a minimum age for the image below. In other cases, prehistoric artists were kind enough to paint over a speleothem, allowing us to glean a maximum age for their work, Aubert says.
Samples taken from the Lubang Jeriji Saleh cave showed a picture of an animal, probably a banteng – a species of wild cattle that still lives in Borneo – must have been made before 40,000 years ago. Conversely, a reddish-orange stencil of a human hand with a maximum age of 51,800 years, giving the researchers their date range for the birth of the figurative art.
The earliest cave paintings found in Europe – the mass scenes of lions, horses and other animals in France's Chauvet cave – have been dated to around 30,000-33,000 years ago. But there are also the exquisite ivory figurines unearthed in German caves, such as the so-called Venus of Hohle Fels and the Lion Man of the Stadel, which date to around 35,000-40,000 years ago, which is the later end of the range for the finds in Borneo.
Researchers note the goal of the new study Their main point is that apparently did not emerge in just one region – Europe – and then slowly spread.
"One now in Europe, and one in Indonesia," says Adam Brumm, another Griffith University archaeologist who took part in the study.
Theoretically it is possible that figurative art arose just once, and then spread to these two areas. But no evidence for that has been found so far.
So, what could have been the impetus behind the simultaneous acquisition of an advanced skill?
Aubert, the Griffith "One possibility is that, at the beginning, both regions were inhabited by small groups and then, because of favorable conditions, and the possibility of new forms of expression." archaeologist who is the lead researcher on the Nature study. "Another hypothesis would be the arrival of a new population".
The idea is certainly a possibility if we consider the rise of the Aurignacian culture. That is what archeologists call the earliest-known cave-painting people in Western Europe.
Last year, Israeli researchers reported that the Aurignacians may have grown from an earlier culture, the Ahmarian, which was native to the Middle East and spread to Europe around 45,000 years ago.
But we can not say whether it is from the Middle East or elsewhere, created as an artistic avant-garde in Borneo as well. Aubert says, adding that he has never been systematically excavated, adding that he hopes to start in the first caves.
We can however be reasonably sure that the cave art in Borneo was done by Homo sapiens, rather than by other hominins, he says. For one thing, no other hominins have been demonstrated to produce figurative art. In a cave in Sarawak, on the Malaysian side of the island, Aubert says. The archeology says, there was no art in that cave.
The archeologists also suspect the prehistoric artists of Borneo Already in 2014, Aubert and colleagues published in a study about 35,000 years ago the image of a babirusa (also known as a pig-deer) found in a cave in Sulawesi, an island east of Borneo.
"We look forward to seeing you from the world of Eurasia," says Aubert.
Researchers also found that the spooky artistic entanglement of Europe and Southeast Asia was not a one-time occurrence. Aubert's team identified in the caves of Borneo that began around 20,000 years ago, during the peak of the last Ice Age.
In this phase, characterized by purple-colored drawings, the hand stencil motif continues, though now these images are often grouped together as if to form trees, perhaps suggesting family ties between the group's members, Aubert says.
More importantly, in this "purple period", the images of animals give way to representations of humans: stick-figures wearing elaborate headdresses engaged in hunting, dancing or other activities.
"This is from the same time," Aubert says. "I know, we are definitely starting to see a shared pattern here. I do not know if that is the natural course of human symbolism, or a coincidence, or if, once again, the environment was favorable to human life.
Borneo was not an island as it is today. It was the southeastern tip of the Asian mainland. According to Omry Barzilai, an archeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority and one of the researchers behind the two sides of the Aurignacian culture.
But to prove that, we would need to find some painted caves somewhere between Europe and Indonesia. Barzilai, who did not take part in the study of the Borneo caves. "Perhaps art was in the cultural basket", he says. "Art served as a tool to manage a population, whether to support a system or to teach the young person to hunt."
Further investigation of the early inhabitants of Borneo, Barzilai suggest.
What is art?
Questions about why and how our ancestors started making art go to the heart of a broader debate on when we are symbolic thinking, the uniquely human ability to grasp and convey complex meaning using conventionally-agreed sounds or images.
In other words, the question is: how did we become human and when did it happen?
Notes that the archeologists working in Borneo may well have identified the oldest figurative art, but some researchers believe humans became cognitively capable of producing abstract symbols much earlier.
Going back to a million years, somebody – it seems Homo erectus – was engraving shells, which were found on the Indonesian island of Java. This is the earliest known decoration.
Further indicating that Homo sapiens may have been made in caves in Spain and Portugal between 66,000 to 64,000 years ago of Europe.
In September, archaeologists claimed that the crisscrossing, hashtag-looking lines of red ochre traced some 73,000 years ago on a stone in Blombos cave, South Africa, were the earliest example of symbolic art by Homo sapiens ever found.
Primitive hashtags and crosses represent actual art, and markers of symbolic thinking, or just random doodling.
Aubert, for one, is skeptical of these supposed early instances of symbolic thought.
"So we have something that looks like a hashtag, but we are doing it intentionally, and we can not answer that, so we can not prove that" he says. They were just sharpening the eye and then using it as an insect repellent. "
Barzilai, the Israeli archaeologist. Early examples of purported symbolism.
"If you find 50 caves with the same engravings or paintings, then it's something systematic," Barzilai says. "But finds like Blombos stand alone, they are something individual, isolated, and I would not consider them art."