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In 1879 palaeolithic cave art was discovered in Altamira Cave, Spain. This marked the start of the scientific study of cave art in Europe; resulting in hundreds of discoveries over the next century (and a third). Then, as the out of Africa hypothesis grew in popularity attention turned to our ancestral homeland, leading to the discovery of prehistoric art more than twice the age of the European stuff.

Last week palaeoanthropologists officially added Asia to the list of continents with palaeolithic art after the discovery of images on a cave wall in Indonesia. This also marks the only known non-Europe example of cave art ever1.

This new art comes from Maros, on Sulawesi, Indonesia. Actually, it isn’t really new art; having been discovered in the 1950s. The new part is that it was dated (by examining the uranium decay in the calcite that had “grown” over the art) to ~39,000 years ago. This makes it not just the only non-European palaeolithic cave art, but some of the oldest cave art full stop1.

The images from Maros

The images from Maros

However, what’s most remarkable about these images in how unremarkable they are. The images include some geometric shapes, the profile of a boar and a hand stencil; which are all types of images you see in European cave art. The pigment used appears to be ochre (although the paper doesn’t confirm this), which is the material used in African and European art4,5. Even the techniques themselves seem similar, with the stencil being created by blowing pigment around a hand1; just like in Europe6.

These pictures are pretty average; which is fascinating. Does it imply that palaeolithic people only made art for a handful of reasons; hence why it all looks so similar (and possibly meaning that we actually have a chance of figuring out what those reasons were). Or does it indicate that these similarities were inherited from an art ancestor; and there’s even older cave art we’ve yet to find. Or maybe, if you’re feeling especially fanciful, it could indicate some cultural contact between Europe and Indonesia.

After all, some people interpret the spread of Venus figurines across Europe during this same period as evidence of long distance trade/social networks.

Figurines from across Europe all share many similarities

Figurines from across Europe all share many similarities

This find is also really significant as it represents an “independent” sample against which all our ideas about cave art can be tested. Since 1879 scientists have come up with loads of possible hypotheses about why our ancestors made this sort of art; and if any of them hold water then they should also be applicable to this new art from the other side of the world. For example, some have argued that the profiles of animals are ways of storing information about the tracks, outline and colouration of the animal; all of which would be useful to remember when trying to hunt it2. Others argue that cave art might be part of a “coming of age” ceremony; in which case we might expect the stencil to be the hand of a non-adult3.

In short, this art isn’t particularly amazing. But what it allows us to study is; possibly making it the greatest discovery about cave art since 1879. The research based on this find is going to be very interesting, so don’t forget to subscribe to EvoAnth so I can keep you up to date!


  1. Aubert, M., Brumm, A., Ramli, M., Sutikna, T., Saptomo, E. W., Hakim, B., … & Dosseto, A. (2014). Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature,514(7521), 223-227.
  2. Mithen, S. 1988. Looking and learning: Upper Palaeolithic art and information gathering. World Archaeology, 19(3):297-327
  3. Bednarik, R. 2008. Children as Pleistocene artists. Rock Art Research, 25(2):173-182
  4. Henshilwood, C. S., d’Errico, F., & Watts, I. (2009). Engraved ochres from the middle stone age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution, 57(1), 27-47.
  5. González-Sainz, C., Ruiz-Redondo, A., Garate-Maidagan, D., & Iriarte-Avilés, E. (2013). Not only Chauvet: Dating Aurignacian rock art in Altxerri B Cave (northern Spain). Journal of human evolution, 65(4), 457-464.
  6. Snow, R. (2006). Sexual dimorphism in Upper Palaeolithic hand stencils.ANTIQUITY-OXFORD-, 80(308), 390.

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Wyrd Smythe · 21st October 2014 at 9:52 pm

They all bought the same “paint-by-numbers” kit. 🙂

It seems very likely to me that, given the fascination with life and death and the female figure and role, that there would be some convergence in the iconography. Humans all do look much the same.

    Adam Benton · 21st October 2014 at 9:57 pm

    That just makes things even more interesting, given that in cave art (unlike the figurines) humans make up a tiny amount of the actual images. There are more hand stencils than pictures of people

      Jim Birch · 22nd October 2014 at 12:02 am

      Maybe they didn’t like drawing people. People are hard to draw. Probably not absolutely hard to draw, but difficult because we are so tuned to recognising them that it is easy get them “very” wrong. Paleolithic cave art is naturalistic so maybe they found pictures of people gratingly poor imitations but could relate to a very bloated looking boar? Later art traditions developed conventions for representing faces and the human form that didn’t require naturalistic accuracy – and looked good! – taking the heat off the artist.

        Adam Benton · 22nd October 2014 at 12:23 am

        Yet there are the venus figurines, which are pretty bad representations of humans. And the fact that most paintings are geometric patterns. Long story short, they don’t seem too fussed over the accuracy of representstoons

        Paul Braterman · 22nd October 2014 at 1:06 am

        Venus figurines are ritually distorted, much like starlets with implants. Perhaps we need to make a serious study of comparative palaeopornography.

        Adam Benton · 22nd October 2014 at 9:03 am

        One of the classic explanations for this distortion is that they’re actually made by women; looking down at their own body. Hence the feet seem small, whilst features…higher up… Are more prominent

Greg Sharpe · 22nd October 2014 at 1:46 am

The figurines just look like their pregnant to me.

    Adam Benton · 22nd October 2014 at 9:05 am

    There was an interesting study about how the figurines have fat in the same places as pregnant women. Thus, whilst they may have been a bit distorted, they’re ultimately based on pregnant people

Brett Martin · 23rd October 2014 at 12:55 pm

Well I have art twice this age, and twice as old as the venus figures. There’s far more to learn about far older stuff than this.

    Adam Benton · 23rd October 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Not too suprising; the oldest agreed upon art is ~4 times as old as the figurines

      Brett Martin · 23rd October 2014 at 2:29 pm

      I think the art in my examples points to evidence of the ‘oldest superior intellect’ not just though optical illusions, but animation as well. The older the art the harder we would expect it is to read/appreciate, So I would also suggest there are artifacts much older than my own.

        Adam Benton · 23rd October 2014 at 7:10 pm

        Im skeptical of these claims

        Brett Martin · 23rd October 2014 at 8:48 pm

        Ok, good, consider this. I have a house full of iconic materials from my site and below are two links to a recent find, all pictures are of the same piece.


        I suggest the piece is self evident as an artwork, its also packed with optical illusions, that suggest a lot of forethought before manufacture, and even an animation. The amount of detail in each creature rivals the images in the great caves. And there are a lot of clear creatures in that stone.

        The species described would indicate a date of at least 76,000bp by the most conservative of interglacial dates I know of, others would suggest more like 140,000bp.

        Adam Benton · 23rd October 2014 at 9:09 pm

        What you have is a website full of paradolia

Brett Martin · 23rd October 2014 at 9:16 pm

That may be true, but I also have a website full of prehistoric art, worked materials, and obvious stone tools with the same set of iconography 😀

Brett Martin · 23rd October 2014 at 9:23 pm

ok last word from me here on this, were you unable to see the lion? with all its details? if you did, well your brain made it all up right? And so did everyone else’s. And the gorilla is just coincidence, in his 3 differing poses.

Jim Birch · 24th October 2014 at 12:12 am

I thought that Australian aboriginal cave art goes well back too?


Evidence of Aboriginal art can be traced back at least 30,000 years and is found throughout Australia (notably at Uluru and Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory).[14][15] In terms of age and abundance, cave art in Australia is comparable to that of Lascaux and Altamira in Europe.[16][17]

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