Cave Paintings Change Story of Ancient Art

Indonesian art goes back at least 39K years
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 8, 2014 3:27 PM CDT
Indonesian Cave Paintings Change Story of Ancient Art
A photo of the cave art in Indonesia.   (Griffith University)

A closer look at cave paintings in Indonesia may redraw the map of prehistoric art and show us that the world's first artists were in Africa, National Geographic reports. An article in Nature says that cave paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, once considered up to 12,000 years old, actually go back at least 39,900 years—roughly the age of the world's oldest-known cave paintings, in Spain. That means early cave paintings weren't exclusive to Europe, and may date to the people who first traveled from Africa to southern Arabia, Indonesia, and Australia over the past 50,000 years. "Until now, we've always believed that cave painting was part of a suite of complex symbolic behavior that humans invented in Europe," an archaeologist tells NPR.

The new view: Cave art developed simultaneously among different ancient peoples, or possibly started with early painters in Africa. As for the Indonesian art—of hand stencils and a babirusa or "pig-deer"—it was painted with ochre, a mineral pigment, ground into powder and blended with liquids, the Guardian reports. First discovered in the 1950s, the art was dated incorrectly on the assumption that it couldn't have endured too long in tropical climes. Researchers revised that view by dating thin mineral layers that cover the cave images (figuring the art must predate the crust, the New York Times notes). "We've been shown here that our views have been too 'Euro-centric' about the origins of cave painting," says an archaeologist. "Absolutely this changes our views." (Seems Neanderthals may have created art, too.)

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