World’s ‘oldest animal painting’ found in Borneo: all you need to know

by Elton Gomes

The earliest known painting of an animal has been identified in a cave on the island of Borneo. The artwork is believed to be at least 40,000 years old. The painting is thought to be the oldest example of figurative painting, a type of painting that depicts real objects rather than abstract shapes. The findings have been published in Nature.

What researchers know about the artwork

The researchers have not yet ascertained what animal the painting represents, but they strongly believe that it could be a banteng, a type of wild cow that lives in the area today.

The painting was found in a system of caves in the remote and rugged mountains of East Kalimantan, an Indonesian province on Borneo. The caves also contain several other prehistoric paintings, drawings, and other imagery, including hand stencils, animals, abstract signs, and symbols.

“It is the oldest figurative cave painting in the world,” said Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. “It’s amazing to see that. It’s an intimate window into the past,” the Guardian reported.

The animal appears to have a spear shaft stuck in its flank and could be one of a series of similar red-orange coloured paintings, which were known to be made with iron-oxide pigment. These paintings could be an indication of the oldest phase of art in the cave. Other artworks of animals along with hand stencils have also been found.

How old could the paintings be?

Maxime Aubert’s team used a technique called uranium series analysis to date the paintings to at least 40,000 years old. The team also found calcite crusts near the rear of the painted animal. If the measurement is accurate, the Borneo paintings could be 4,500 years older than depictions of animals that can be seen on cave walls on the neighbouring island of Sulawesi.

Based on the dates gleaned from calcite crusts in the Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave and others nearby, Aubert’s team has proposed a timeline for the progression of art in the region. They predict that rock art might have begun between 40,000 and 52,000 years ago and lasted until 20,000 years ago when the second phase began.

“At that time, humans start depicting the human world,” Aubert said, the Guardian reported. Aubert then estimated the age of the artwork found: ”The oldest cave art image we dated is a large painting of an unidentified animal, probably a species of wild cattle still found in the jungles of Borneo – this has a minimum age of around 40,000 years and is now the earliest known figurative artwork,” he told the BBC.

A timeline of rock art

The team’s results showed that the ancient artwork in East Kalimantan was made during three distinct periods. The first phase, which dates to between 52,000 and 40,000 years ago, includes the hand stencils and reddish-orange ochre-drawn animals, Aubert said.

Due to a major change in the culture during the icy Last Glacial Maximum, about 20,000 years ago, artists in this phase favoured a dark mulberry-purple color. They were known to paint hand stencils, abstract signs, and human-like figures wearing elaborate headdresses and engaging in various activities, the researchers said.

The final phase of rock art involved humanlike figures, boats, and geometric designs. These were mostly drawn with black pigments, the researchers said. This type of art can be found elsewhere in Indonesia and could’ve come from Asian Neolithic farmers, who moved into the region about 4,000 years ago, the researchers said.

“We don’t know if these [different types of cave art] are from two different groups of humans, or if it represents the evolution of a particular culture,” Aubert said. “We are planning archaeological excavation in those caves in order to find more information about these unknown artists,” Live Science reported.

Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius