Scientists have used one of the most reliable methods to determine that a painting of a cattle-like animal found in a cave on Borneo Island is at least 40,000 years old, making it the earliest known work of figurative art.
Deep in the mountains of Eastern Kalimantan there are remote caves among the lush rainforest. A team researcher from Australia and Indonesia hiked for days and climbed a mountain to reach them – and discovered tigers and snakes under the road.
Their goal was to more accurately determine the age of a series of pictures found in the caves discovered in the 1990s.
It is believed that cave art began about 50,000 years ago. First there were lines, then hand stamping and eventually figurative art depicting images from everyday life, like animals and humans.
The researchers, whose results were published in the journal Nature, divided the paintings into a cave in three categories showing the transition over time. The oldest pictures are red-orange paintings of animals, such as cattle, and hand stencils; followed by maroon colored handstiles and images of people; and finally, illustrations of people, boats and black-colored geometric patterns.
Dating cave art has just been proved to be tricky. So made, led by Maxime Aubert, who originally retrieves from Levis, Que., Used a method called "uranium series dating."
It works like this: rainwater swims through the limestone and dissolves small amounts of uranium. The uranium falls and produces another element, thorium. Uranium is water soluble, but thorium is not. The researchers can take a selection of the cave and determine the relationship between uranium and thorium so that they can better calculate the age limit.
The researchers decided that a painting of an unidentified animal, probably a species of wild cattle still on the island, is at least 40,000 years old. It is the oldest known work of figurative cave art – art depicting an image from real life.
They also dated chestnut gloves from the same cave, including one that could be up to 51,800 years old.
History of the cave art
While Europe is perhaps the most abundant source of cave art, works have been found all over the world.
For most of the ice age, Borneo formed the eastern tip of Eurasia. But after the ice started melting and sea levels began to rise, it broke down and became one of the Indonesian islands.
So cave art actually occurred around the same time in different corners of what had been on the same continent.
"Most of what we know about how we lived in Pleistocene is based on archeology and it's usually rubbish of people – what they left," Aubert said. "With cave art, if we can date it, it gives a lot of information we can not get with archeology … They portray their lifestyle and they generally speak to us 40,000 years later."
Clock: The researchers explore the artificial cave in Borneo
And there are still many answers to be found.
"What Icelandic artists in Borneo were and what happened to them is a mystery," said team leader Dr Pindi Setiawan, an Indonesian archaeologist and lecturer at Bandung Institute of Technology.
How exact the art was made is also unknown. In the case of hand stencils, researchers suspect that artists may have blown and dust on the walls. And if their hunch is correct, there may be traces of DNA over the years.
Aubert said they try to see if they can extract any DNA, but acknowledge "it's a long shot".