Scientists Have Discovered the World’s Oldest Figurative Art: a 40,000-Year-Old Cave Painting of Cattle

The art in a Borneo cave was dated using flowstone testing that detects uranium.

The world's oldest figurative art was found in this Borneo cave. Photo by Pindi Setiawan.
The world's oldest figurative art was found in this Borneo cave. Photo by Pindi Setiawan.

Scientists have identified the oldest figurative art in the world, and it can be found in a cave in the Borneo jungle. Created more than 40,000 years ago, the faint image depicts wild cattle, painted in iron oxide, or ocher. The cave, in Kalimantan, Indonesia, also features ancient hand stencils and more recent paintings of human figures, from 13,000 to 20,000 years ago.

The findings were announced in the journal Nature on Wednesday. The drawings were first discovered in 1994. “Who the ice age artists of Borneo were and what happened to them is a mystery,” project co-leader Pindi Setiawan, an archaeologist from Indonesia’s Bandung Institute of Technology told the Independent.

Previously, the world’s oldest figurative art was believed to be ivory figurines of humans and animals carved in Germany and discovered in 2003, but those were 40,000 years old at most.

There are older man-made images, but they only show lines and abstract patterns; archaeologists announced the discovery of what they purport to be the world’s oldest artwork, a series of red lines dating back 73,000 years, in September. (Those marks would be 30,000 years older than any previously discovered artwork, and not all experts are convinced they were made intentionally by humans.)

With artifacts this old, scientists run into obstacles with radiocarbon dating, as there may not be enough carbon left to test. An alternate method is flowstone dating. When water runs down the walls of a cave, seeping into the limestone, a calcite flowstone forms. A flowstone contains uranium, which will decay at a predictable rate, turning into thorium. Testing the ratio of the two elements allows scientists to nail down an accurate date for the flowstone’s formation.

The world's oldest figurative art, showing wild cattle, in a Borneo cave, was made at least 40,000 years ago. Photo by Luc-Henri Fage.

The world’s oldest figurative art, showing wild cattle, in a Borneo cave, was made at least 40,000 years ago. Photo by Luc-Henri Fage.

The scientists tested the flowstone both on top of and sometimes underneath the cave paintings, allowing them to find maximum and minimum ages for the works—some of which could date back up to 52,000 years.

The distinction between abstract and figurative art is an important one, reflecting human development and the way early Homo sapiens saw themselves and the world around them. The newly dated Indonesian paintings prove this shift was taking place at roughly the same time in both Asia and Europe.

“It’s essentially happening at the same time at the opposite ends of the world,” Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia, who co-authored the Nature article, told the New York Times. His team also published a 2014 article about cave art found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, using flowstone dating to find art created up to 40,000 years ago.

The world's oldest figurative art was found in a cave in the Borneo jungle. Photo by Pindi Setiawan.

The world’s oldest figurative art was found in a cave in the Borneo jungle. Photo by Pindi Setiawan.

For their latest study, Aubert and his team traveled deep into the rain forest to conduct their research, traveling upriver by canoe and backpacking the rest of the way through the brush, blazing a trail during their four-day walk.

More work is ahead. “We are planning archaeological excavation in those caves in order to find more information about these unknown artists,” he told CNN. “Rock art was made for a purpose and we can see how people lived a long time ago in a way that archaeology can’t provide. It’s also like they’re still talking to us today.”

See more photos of the cave art below.

Hand stencils found in the Borneo cave now believed to be home to the world's oldest figurative art. Photo by Kinez Riz.

Hand stencils found in the Borneo cave now believed to be home to the world’s oldest figurative art. Photo by Kinez Riz.

A researcher studying the world's oldest figurative art in a Borneo cave. Photo by Pindi Setiawan.

A researcher studying the world’s oldest figurative art in a Borneo cave. Photo by Pindi Setiawan.

Cave art from a Borneo cave depicting human figures, at least 13,600 years old but possibly from the last Ice Age, 20,000 years ago. Photo by Pindi Setiawan.

Cave art from a Borneo cave depicting human figures, at least 13,600 years old but possibly from the last Ice Age, 20,000 years ago. Photo by Pindi Setiawan.

Hand stencils found in the Borneo cave now believed to be home to the world's oldest figurative art. Photo by Kinez Riz.

Hand stencils found in the Borneo cave now believed to be home to the world’s oldest figurative art. Photo by Kinez Riz.


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