Earlier this month an article was published in Nature revealing some new evidence of Paleolithic cave art. The most famous and probably well known cave art is the Lascaux Caves in France with depictions of large animals spanning the cave walls. Plenty of other examples of palaeolithic art has been found in Europe, especially in France and Europe but what makes this most recent publication by Aubert et al (2014) is that this cave art is in Indonesia. However, this is not the only striking fact of this art, but more importantly the age of the art found to have have been created at least 40,000 years ago. This post will look at this art and how this discovery can provide an insight into human evolutionary history alongside other art found in Spain dating to the same time.
The cave art in Indonesia is located on the island Sulawesi and was first discovered in the 1950’s but was thought to be less than 10,000 years old. By using a dating technique using trace elements of uranium Aubert et al. established that they were in fact much older than this. This method uses calcite which forms in caves and over the paintings and therefore can identify a minimum age for the art. This method was also used in a previous study by Pike et al. (2012) who used the technique on cave art in the Southwest of Spain. What was remarkable that for some of the paintings found in the caves the minimum age of creation was 40,000 year ago. Before, I discuss what this could mean from a human evolutionary perspective I will look at the cave independently and discuss their findings.
The art at the Sulawesi caves included depictions of large animals and hand stencils. From 14 of these motifs 19 samples were taken at 7 different sites. From every sample 3-6 aliquot were acquired, one from under the pigment layer and at least two from above this layer. From this data it was found that an image of a pig-deer (figure 1) was dated to 35,400 years ago. The hand stencils (fig. 2) were even older with having a minimum age of 39,900 years old. These dates, add mentioned, are within the dates produced for oldest cave art found in Spain.
The research conducted Spain took 50 samples from 11 cave sites using the methods discussed above. A variety of images were found and dated included a red dotted house, hand stencils and red circular disks (fig. 3). The horse was dated to 22,000 years ago and one hand stencil days to 24,200 years ago and another to 37,300 years. However the oldest dated was recorded from of the red disks to 40,800 years old.
These similar days from Spain and Indonesia provide an interesting discussion point in the story of human evolution. Although the techniques and images are similar in different locations and date to a similar time it cannot be said whether they derived independently or whether they were a part of an older cultural repertoire.
I think this discovery in Indonesia is incredible and when combined with the data from Spain it just adds to the remarkable story of human evolution. I also think that it important to remember that events occurred outsider of Europe and currently we have a very euro centric view of the world. Discoveries like these help to remind us that this isn’t the case and that in order to get a complete and accurate view of human evolution research across the world must occur.
Aubert, M., A. Brumm, et al. (2014). “Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia.” Nature 514(7521): 223-227.
Pike, A. W. G., D. L. Hoffmann, et al. (2012). “U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain.” Science 336(6087): 1409-1413.
Roebroeks, W. (2014). “Archaeology: Art on the move.” Nature 514(7521): 170-171.