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.
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.
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!
- 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.
- Mithen, S. 1988. Looking and learning: Upper Palaeolithic art and information gathering. World Archaeology, 19(3):297-327
- Bednarik, R. 2008. Children as Pleistocene artists. Rock Art Research, 25(2):173-182
- 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.
- 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.
- Snow, R. (2006). Sexual dimorphism in Upper Palaeolithic hand stencils.ANTIQUITY-OXFORD-, 80(308), 390.