Cave paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi were found more than 50 years ago, but until now the dates of origin were not known. The art shown here has not been dated, but is stylistically similar to other art in the area now found to be around 40,000 years old. Photograph by Maxime Aubert, Griffith University, Australia
by Dan Vergano
A hand painting in an Indonesian cave dates to at least 39,900 years ago, making it among the oldest such images in the world, archaeologists reported Wednesday in a study that rewrites the history of art.
The discovery on the island of Sulawesi vastly expands the geography of the first cave artists, who were long thought to have appeared in prehistoric Europe around that time. Reported in the journal Nature, the cave art includes stencils of hands and a painting of a babirusa, or “pig-deer,” which may be the world’s oldest figurative art. (Related: “Mysteries of Prehistoric Rock Art Probed.”)
“Overwhelmingly depicted in Europe and Sulawesi were large, and often dangerous, mammal species that possibly played major roles in the belief systems of these people,” says archaeologist and study leader Maxime Aubert of Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.
The finds from the Maros cave sites on Sulawesi raise the possibility that such art predates the exodus of modern humans from Africa 60,000 or more years ago. (Related: “The Human Journey: Migration Routes.”)
“I predict that even older examples of cave art will be discovered on Sulawesi, and in mainland Asia, and ultimately in our African homeland,” says human origins expert Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, who was not on the study team.