40,000-Year-Old Asian Cave Paintings Shock Archaeologists: Reconsidering History

WASHINGTON—Ancient cave drawings in Indonesia are as old as famous prehistoric art in Europe, according to a new study that shows our ancestors were drawing all over the world 40,000 years ago.

And it hints at an even earlier dawn of creativity in modern humans than scientists had thought.

Archaeologists calculated that a dozen stencils of hands in mulberry red and two detailed drawings of an animal described as a “pig-deer” are between 35,000 to 40,000 years old, based on levels of decay of the element uranium. That puts the art found in Sulawesi, southeast of Borneo, in the same rough time period asdrawings found in Spain and a famous cave in France.

And one of the Indonesian handprints, pegged as at least 39,900 years old, is now the oldest hand stencil known to science, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

These are more than 100 Indonesian cave drawings that have been known since 1950. In 2011, scientists noticed some strange outcroppings — called “cavepopcorn” — on the drawings. Those mineral deposits would make it possible to use the new technology of uranium decay dating to figure out how old the art is. So they tested the cave popcorn that had grown over the stencils that would give a minimum age. It was near 40,000 years.

“Whoa, it was not expected,” recalled study lead author Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in Australia.

Looking at the paintings, the details on the animal drawings are “really, really well-made,” Aubert said in a phone interview from Jakarta, Indonesia. “Then when you look at it in context that it’s really 40,000 years old, it’s amazing.”

Paleoanthropologist John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York, who wasn’t part of the study, called this an important discovery that changes what science thought about early humans and art.

Before this discovery, experts had a Europe-centric view of how, when and where humans started art, Aubert said. Knowing when art started is important because “it kind of defines us as a species,” he said.

Shea said in an email: “Inasmuch as many of us would have difficulty replicating such paintings, they [the people who painted in the Indonesian caves] may even have been our superiors in this respect.”

From The Associated Press

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