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This large cave wall in Borneo features several paintings of wild cattle; the indistinct image at top center has been dated to at least 40,000 years old. 

Luc-Henri Fage

This animal image may be the world’s oldest figurative art

Daubed in orange ochre at least 40,000 years ago, images of what appear to be wild cattle on the Indonesian island of Borneo are now the oldest known figurative paintings in the world. Painted in a remote limestone cavern, they are more than 4000 years older than the previous record holders on nearby Sulawesi, and they add to evidence that thriving artistic traditions were emerging simultaneously in Europe and Asia.

Until recently, most researchers thought the home of the earliest figurative paintings—those depicting people and animals rather than abstract objects—was France’s Chauvet Cave. Vivid images of prehistoric rhinos, cave lions, and horses there have been dated to about 35,000 years old. But in 2014, a team led by geochemist and archaeologist Maxime Aubert of Griffith University in Gold Coast, Australia, dated paintings of wild pigs in caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi to at least 35,400 years old. Stencils of human hands there were at least 40,000 years old.

Now, as they report today in Nature, Aubert’s joint Indonesian-Australia team has dated a painting of what may be a banteng, a Southeast Asian wild cattle, in Borneo’s Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave, to at least 40,000 years ago; hand stencils there may be up to 52,000 years old, making them among the oldest such prints in the world.

“This is a remarkably important finding,” says Sue O’Connor, an archaeologist at Australian National University in Canberra who focuses on Southeast Asia and Australia, but was not involved in the new study. “It shows that the [previously discovered] Sulawesi rock art … was not regionally unique, but rather is part of a larger artistic and symbolic tradition” tracking some of the earliest modern humans in Southeast Asia, she says.

Rock art adorns many caves in the mountainous province of East Kalimantan. The researchers found that the paintings in Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave are of three styles and ages: the ancient orange animals and hand stencils; purplish hand stencils, intricate motifs, and dynamic human figures dated to 20,000 to 21,000 years ago; and black charcoal designs thought to have been left by Neolithic farmers about 4000 years ago. Over the millennia “there was clearly a shift from depicting the animal world to depicting the human world,” Aubert says—a trend also seen in the cave art of Europe.

To date the paintings, Aubert’s team turned to a now widely used technique, measuring the ratios of uranium and thorium in the calcite crusts that had accumulated on top of the cave paintings. The scientists took 65 different samples and tested for contamination that could have come from sources other than the calcite. They showed that the calcite layers were youngest at the surface and oldest closer to the paintings, meaning the dating is sound, Aubert says.

Jane Balme, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth, says the discovery “draws attention to the widespread similarities in human’s symbolic expression across the globe.” We now know that the famous cave art of Europe “is just one area where such expression occurred 40,000 years ago,” she says.

But precisely how the various styles of art are linked to waves of migration is still an open question. “The discovery of three different chronological styles is quite amazing, as we can follow the evolution and changes of rock art over 50,000 years,” says Francois-Xavier Ricaut, a biological anthropologist from the University of Toulouse in France, who has also been working on Borneo. He says the big question now is whether the two older types of art represent the arrival of different peoples or were created by one population whose style evolved over time.

Aubert suspects humans in the region—present as far back as 60,000 to 70,000 years ago—didn’t create art until populations reached a critical mass. That wouldn’t have been true of the region’s earliest inhabitants, of whom no art has been discovered.

His team plans to look for butchered animal bones, tools, and other traces of the ancient artisans in the caves, starting next year. “We want to find out who made those paintings,” he says.