Oldest Figurative Painting Depicts Wild Cow

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Research published on Thursday by academics from Australia's Griffith University (GU), along with colleagues from Indonesia's National Research Center for Archaeology (ARKENAS), and the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), revealed images of animals, human hand stencils, as well as other abstract signs and symbols, to be as old as 40,000 years. The incomplete image was found in Lubang Jeriji Saleh, a limestone cave.

Forty thousand years ago, Borneo was not an island but a part of continental Asia when the sea levels were lower, the researchers said.

The first phase is characterised by hand stencils and large figurative paintings of animals that are reddish-orange in colour.

Much of it clearly had meaning, the researchers said. Rather than being simply an "abstract design", as older cave paintings are, figurative paintings like the cow portrait are "clearly like someone chose to depict what they saw", says Australian archaeologist Maxime Aubert, who published his team's "amazing" findings in Nature. Well, if you get lucky - and Aubert and his team did - some rock will have grown over the art in the intervening millennia.

It is considerably older than a 35,400-year-old pig-deer painting discovered by the same team a few years ago in a cave located on Sulawesi, another island in Indonesia. But for thousands of generations, there's no evidence that people actually made figurative art.

Researchers say they've discovered the oldest known figurative cave art in the world, which changes what we knew about the world's first art.

So what does this tell us about humans living in the area at the time?

"Around 20,000 years ago, painting becomes of the human world, not the animal world". It seemed as though people had made long and risky climbs to these clifftop caves mostly to create art.

Jane Balme, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth, says the discovery "draws attention to the widespread similarities in human's symbolic expression across the globe".

Ancient figurative cave art, 40,000 years old.

Or maybe the art itself was "exported", so to speak, traveling from place to place and beginning at different stages as humans learned art. This phase includes some apparent depictions of humans. This was during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), a time when the ice sheets were at their greatest extent and the global ice age climate was at its most extreme.

Although the paintings were found in 1994, researchers weren't able to date them until now.

This contradicts the old belief that cave painting originated in Europe.

The discovery of calcite on top of the paintings was crucial because the researchers date when it formed, as opposed to the actual pigments. As water infiltrates through limestone, it draws a small quantity of uranium. To reach it, the expedition had with machetes to cut through dense jungle.

It is unknown whether there are human remains in the cave itself. That excavation will happen next year. Measuring uranium decay, they dated hand stencils, created by blowing red dye through a tube to capture the outline of a hand pressed against rock, to nearly 40,000 years ago. And the age of the art, from Borneo to Sulawesi, suggests a migration pattern.

"Rock art provides an intimate window into the past", Aubert said. Until now, the oldest known human-made figures were ivory sculptures found in Germany. Rock art was made for a goal and we can see how people lived a long time ago in a way that archaeology can't provide.