Hidden in a remote cave buried in the inaccessible rain forests of Indonesia Borneo, a series of stone paintings helps archaeologists and anthropologists rewrite the history of artistic expression. There, researchers have found that entrepreneurial painters may have been among the very first people to decorate stone walls with pictures of the old world they inhabited.
The oldest painting in Lubang Jeriji Saléh Caves on Borneo, the third largest island in the world, is a large wildlife farm, whose relatives can still walk the local forests. The figure has been dated at 40,000 years old and perhaps older, possibly created about 51
These estimates, recently calculated by radiometric dating, can make the painting the oldest known example of figurative cave art depicting objects from the real world as opposed to abstract patterns. The figures also provide more evidence that an artistic bloom occurred among our ancestors at the same time at opposite ends of the vast Eurasian continent.
Hundreds of ancient images, from abstract patterns and hand stencils to animals and human figures, have been documented in Indonesian Borneo's remote caves since researchers became aware of them in the mid 1990s. However, as other signs of old human housing in this part of the world, they are rarely seen or studied. Borneo Sangkulirang Mangkalihathal Lake is a land of floating limestone towers and rocks, riddled with caves below and covered with thick tropical forests above which makes travel difficult and has hidden local secrets for thousands of years.
Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia, said that the attempt to study the cave paintings was worth it, not least because of the unique connection that you feel here to the distant past.
"When we do archaeological excavations, we're lucky if we can find some pieces of bone or stone tools, and usually you'll find what people have chucked out," said Aubert, leading author of a new study specifying Borneo paintings. "Looking at the rock art, it's really an intimate thing. It's a window in the past, and you can see their lives as they depicted. It's really like they're talking to us 40,000 years ago."  The dating of this ancient South East Asian cave art marks a new chapter in the developing story of where and when our ancestors began to paint their impressions of the outside world. A painted rhinoceros in France's Chauvet Cave had until recently been the oldest known example of figurative cave, dating to about 35,000 to 39,000 years old. Chauvet and some other places led researchers to believe that the birth of such advanced painting had occurred in Europe. But in 2014, Aubert and colleagues announced that the cave art showing stenciled handshakes and a large pig-like animal from the same period had been found on the other side of the world on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
"2014 paper on Sulawesi made a very big splash, as it showed that cave art was practiced both in Europe and in Southeast Asia about the same time," says Paleolithic archeologist Wil Roebroeks in an email. Roebroeks, Leiden University in the Netherlands, added that Auberts lay research "killed Eurocentric views on early rock art."
Borneo finds compliments this past work and expands an increasingly wide and exciting worldview of ancient art many new questions in response.
Aubert and colleagues could decide when Borneo's ancient artists understood Its trade by kalitizing kalcitskorps, known as "cave popcorn", like sipping water slowly created over the state of the art. The team dated these deposits by measuring the amount of uranium and thorium in the samples. As uranium falls into thorium at a known rate, urance analysis can be used for to calculate the age of a test. And because the paintings are below These corporations, researchers find that they must be older than the calcite authorities. Indonesia's National Research Center for Archeology (ARKENAS) and Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) also contributed to the study published today in Nature .
Although the urantidate suggests these figures is the oldest known example of such art in the world, Aubert is even more interested in the striking similarities between Borneo Cave Art styles and those found throughout Europe. In fact, two paint colors found in Indonesia's Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave – superimposed by people who frequent the same cave maybe 20,000 years apart – are also displayed more than 7,000 miles away in western Europe.
The first style, which began between 52,000 and 40,000 years ago, uses red and orange shades and contains handstands and paintings of large animals living in the surrounding area. Another distinctive style appeared about 20,000 years ago. It uses purple or mulbery colors, and its gloves, sometimes coupled with branch-like lines, have internal decorations.
13 600 years ago, Borneo cave art had undergone another significant development – it began to portray the human world. "We see little human characters. They wear main dresses, sometimes dancing or hunting, and that's just amazing," said Aubert.
"It's more about a pattern we can see now. We have really old paintings in Europe and Southeast Asia, and not only did they show simultaneously on opposite sides of the world, but it seems as they develop simultaneously on opposite sides of the world, says Aubert. "The other distinctive style occurred around the time for the last glacial mass, so it could even be related to the climate. We just do not know. "
Rock art painters may have developed simultaneously at more than one place, suggests Roebroeks. Alternatively, as he wrote in a 2014 Nature essay, stone art may have been an integral part of the cultural repertoire to colonize modern people, from Western Europe to Southeast Asia and beyond. "
" We can only speculate about the more or less simultaneous "emergence" of stone in western Eurasia and on the second extreme of the distribution of modern people, Insular South East Asia, "said Roebroeks.
The idea that rock art was an" integral part "of modern human culture from the outset probably seems to Durham University archaeologist Paul Pettitt, who says that a wide range of evidence supports the interpretation of non-figurative art in Africa 75,000 years ago or earlier.
"This may originate as a way to decorate the body with specific meanings," he says in an e-mail announcement "and included jewelry that are known from the north and south of the continent already 100,000 years ago. "The Artistic Expression" was developed to include the use of red-grained and engraved signs of 75,000 [years ago] and 75,000 [years ago] stone and 65,000 silk-water reservoir decoration. Assuming that this repertoire left Africa with some of the earliest proliferations of Homo sapiens perhaps on its bodies, it could explain the persistence of an art form that had been extended for at least 40,000 years ago of the body and things closely related to it, to caves and stone shelves, "he says.
But even though we could understand the whole story of early art, we still can miss an even bigger picture.
A 2018 study describes the Spanish rock art so old that it would have been created more than 20,000 years before modern people arrived in the region – which means that the artists must have been neanderthals. Although the dots, lines and handstones are not the same type of figurative art found in Borneo or Chauvet, the images suggest that artistic expression was part of Neanderthal's tool collection at least 64,000 years ago.
Roebroeks warns that researchers would hesitate to determine that certain times or places are the key to the emergence of a certain cultural behavior, simply because evidence of them is missing in other era or premises. As evidenced by the surprisingly old dates recently awarded to Neanderthal rock art or the rise of Pleistocene rock art outside of Indonesia in Indonesia, these assumptions often build on the absence of comparable phenomena in neighboring countries or periods.
Just because we have not found them does not mean they do not exist. "One of the lessons we can learn from the studies by Aubert and colleagues about rock art from Sulawesi and now Borneo is that such ways to figure out can be seriously wrong."
Prehistoric art may have been created in the distant past, but the future is likely to cause surprising discoveries that transform our view of human artistic expression tens of thousands of years after the color has dried.