Borneo hosted Stone Age cave artists
Horned animal painting may be the oldest known figurative art
BY BRUCE BOWER
Discoveries on the island of Borneo illustrate that cave art emerged in Southeast
Asia as early as in Western Europe, and
with comparable complexity, researchers say.
A limestone cave in eastern Borneo
features a reddish-orange painting of
a horned animal, possibly a wild cow. The painting dates to at least 40,000
years ago, concludes a team
led by archaeologist Maxime
Aubert of Griffith University
in Southport, Australia. This
creature represents the oldest known example of a
painted figure anywhere
in the world, the scientists
argue online November 7
The same cave walls
contain two hand outlines
framed in reddish-orange pigment that
were made at least 37,200 years ago and
a similar hand stencil with a maximum
age of 51,800 years.
Three nearby caves display instances
of a second style of rock art that
appeared about 20,000 years ago, the
investigators say. Examples include
purple-hued, humanlike figures and
hand stencils, some decorated with lines
or dots. Painted lines link some hand
stencils to others.
Age estimates rest on analyses of
uranium in mineral deposits that had
formed over and underneath parts
of each cave painting. Scientists used
known decay rates of radioactive uranium in these deposits to calculate
maximum and minimum dates for the
Aubert’s group previously used this
technique, called uranium-series dating,
to calculate that people on the nearby
Indonesian island of Sulawesi created hand stencils on cave walls nearly
40,000 years ago (SN: 11/15/14, p. 6).
“Cave art could have potentially been
exported from Borneo to Sulawesi and
all the way to Papua and Australia,”
Aubert says. Australian cave paintings of
humanlike figures resemble those found
on Borneo, he says, but the ages of the
Australian finds remain uncertain.
No Southeast Asian cave paintings
have been found from when
humans first arrived in the
region, between 70,000
and 60,000 years ago. At
that time and up to the end
of the last ice age around
10,000 years ago, Borneo
formed mainland Eurasia’s
easternmost tip thanks to
lowered sea levels.
Those first Southeast
Asians may have created
cave art that hasn’t been
discovered, Aubert says. Or
small groups of early colonizers may not have painted on cave
walls until their populations expanded,
leading to more complex social and
ritual behaviors. It’s also possible that
another human migration from elsewhere in Asia brought rock art to Borneo
roughly 50,000 years ago.
Whatever the case, “Western European
and Southeast Asian cave art seem to
first appear at about the same time
and with remarkable similarities,” says
archaeologist Sue O’Connor of Australian
National University in Canberra, who did
not participate in the new study.
Other investigators have used the
uranium-series technique to date a
painted red disk in a Spanish cave to at
least 40,800 years ago ( SN: 7/28/12, p. 15).
Another study this year suggested that
Neandertals painted abstract shapes
and hand stencils on the walls of several
Spanish caves at least 64,800 years ago
(SN: 3/17/18, p. 6).
But there have been disagreements
over how to collect mineral samples from
rock art for dating. Aubert’s team, for
instance, has criticized the Neandertal
study, saying the researchers may have
unintentionally dated mineral deposits
that are much older than the artworks.
If so, humans rather than Neandertals
could have created the Spanish cave art.
Two of the authors of that study,
archaeologist João Zilhão of the
University of Barcelona and archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in
England, have their own quibbles with
the new work. The pair don’t doubt
that cave painting emerged in Southeast Asia at least 40,000 years ago.
But descriptions of sampled mineral
deposits from the Borneo caves leave it
unclear whether, for instance, Aubert’s
group dated the horned animal figure or
adjacent paint remnants of some other,
unidentified figure, Zilhão says. s
Asian cave art
seem to first
about the same
time and with
A reddish-orange animal (lower left)
painted on a cave wall in Borneo dates to
at least 40,000 years ago, scientists say.