World

Cave drawing of bull found in Borneo dates back 40,000 years, scientists say

WASHINGTON — Scientists have found the oldest known example of
an animal drawing: a red silhouette of a bull-like beast on the
wall of an Indonesian cave.

The sketch is at least 40,000 years old, slightly older than
similar animal paintings found in famous caves in France and
Spain. Until a few years ago, experts believed Europe was where
our ancestors started drawing animals and other figures.

But the age of the drawing reported Wednesday in the journal
Nature, along with previous discoveries in Southeast Asia,
suggest that figurative drawing appeared in both continents
about the same time.

The new findings fuel discussions about whether historical or
evolutionary events prompted this near-simultaneous “burst of
human creativity,” said lead author Maxime Aubert, an
archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in
Australia.

The remote limestones caves on Borneo have been known to
contain prehistoric drawings since the 1990s. To reach them,
Aubert and his team used machetes to hack through thick jungle
in a verdant corner of the island.

Strapping on miners’ helmets to illuminate the darkness, they
walked and crawled through miles of caves decorated with
hundreds of ancient designs, looking for artwork that could be
dated. They needed to find specific mineral deposits on the
drawings to determine their age with technology that measures
decay of the element uranium.

“Most of the paintings we actually can’t sample,” said Aubert.

Aubert and his fellow researchers reported in 2014 on cave art
from the neighbouring Indonesian island of Sulawesi. They dated
hand stencils, created by blowing red dye through a tube to
capture the outline of a hand pressed against rock, to almost
40,000 years ago.

Now, with the Borneo cave art, the scientists are able to
construct a rough timeline of how art developed in the area. In
addition to the bull, which is about 5 feet (1.5 metres) wide,
they dated red- and purple-colored hand stencils and cave
paintings of human scenes.

After large animal drawings and stencils, “It seems the focus
shifted to showing the human world,” Aubert said.

Around 14,000 years ago, the cave-dwellers began to regularly
sketch human figures doing things like dancing and hunting,
often wearing large headdresses. A similar transition in rock
art subjects happened in the caves of Europe.

“That’s very cool, from a human point of view,” said Peter
Veth, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia,
who was not involved in the study. “People adopted similar
strategies in different environments as they became more
modern.”

The island of Borneo was still connected to mainland Southeast
Asia when the first figurative drawings were made about 40,000
years ago — which is also about the time that the first modern
humans arrived in Europe. The earliest drawings of animals in
the French cave of Chauvet have been dated to about 33,500 to
37,000 years ago.

Whether new waves of people migrating from Africa brought the
skills of figurative cave painting with them, or whether these
arts emerged later, remains unclear. Scientists have only a
partial record of global rock art. The earliest cave etchings
have been found in Africa and include abstract designs, like
crosshatches, dating to around 73,000 years ago.

The next stage of research in Indonesia will include
excavations to learn more about the people who made these
paintings. A few sites have already been identified, containing
human bones, prehistoric jewelry and remains of small animals.

As for the red bull, its meaning remains a mystery.

“We think it wasn’t just food for them — it meant something
special,” said Aubert.

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