Maxime Aubert can only imagine who might have painted the ocher-colored creature onto the cave’s limestone walls. He can merely speculate about what the image may have meant to the person who created it. He’s not even entirely certain what kind of animal it’s supposed to be — a wild cow, perhaps?
But of this, he feels sure: The more than 40,000-year-old art in this remote cave in Indonesia — the oldest figurative painting ever found — represents an important turning point in human history. It marks a moment when our ancestors started to speak in symbols, when people realized the power of pictures to communicate their fears, desires and dreams.
Previously, the oldest known human-crafted figure was a 40,000-year-old lion’s head sculpted from ivory, which was found in Germany. Aubert and his colleagues have also described slightly younger cave paintings of animals at a site on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Tens of thousands of years after they were created, these faded works by long-dead artists have something important to tell us about ourselves. The age of the newly discovered animal art, reported Wednesday in the journal Nature, suggests that people thousands of miles away from each other were undergoing the same transformation at the same time.
“Maybe it’s universal,” said Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in Australia. “Art ... is something that we as humans just do.”
The cow-like creature is among scores of newfound images of hand prints, animals, people and geometric designs that adorn a network of limestone caverns in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. The images span tens of thousands of years of history and appear to represent distinct phases in the development of art.
The diverse array of drawings at the Kalimantan caves makes it an ideal place for exploring how art evolved, Aubert said. “It’s a really spectacular site.”
But reaching it requires something like a pilgrimage: a bumpy drive along winding roads, a voyage by canoe, then a four-day hike through rugged mountains to a valley rimmed by limestone ridges.
The entryway of the cave is cathedral-like, 100 meters wide and bedecked with stalagmites and stalactites. The air there is humid and noisy with the calls of birds.
The oldest paintings, etched in reddish-orange, are found in a low-ceilinged side chamber. Most of them are hand stencils, a common form of art from humanity’s early history. They remind Aubert of the prints his toddler creates by pressing into the condensation on glass windows on cold mornings.
“I don’t know why she does it,” he said. Perhaps it’s an instinct; an impulsive way of declaring, “I was here.”
Among those stencils, the animal illustration stands out for its sophistication. It has a rounded belly and four spindly legs, and resembles the wild cattle that are still found in Borneo’s forests.
Radio isotope dating of a calcite crust that covers part of the image revealed that it is more than 40,000 years old, and possibly as old as 52,000 years. Even the more recent date would make the image older than any painted representation of an animal that has been found.
“It’s a further development in painting,” Aubert said. “Its not simple geometric designs or lines. Someone made an effort to depict an animal. ... That involves planning ahead what you want to do.”
Another set of images, which are tinged a darker shade of purple, are roughly 20,000 years younger. Like similar cave paintings from the same era elsewhere in the world, these feature people. Some appear to be dancing and wearing headdresses.
“It shows a spiritual world,” Aubert said. “And the same thing was happening in Europe.”
He doesn’t think these parallels are a coincidence. The changing art likely reflects shifts in the culture of the artists, Aubert said. Perhaps, 40,000 years ago, human populations across the globe were growing larger, and symbolic art helped them communicate in these more crowded conditions.
Around 20,000 years ago — the time when cave painters began to depict humans — coincides with the peak of the last ice age; the changing climate likely altered how people thought and behaved.
There’s a great deal more to be learned from the Borneo caves, Aubert said. He estimated that scientists have explored only 1 percent of the entire system. Next year, researchers aim to start excavating some of the caves, seeking bones and other remains that might reveal who these prehistoric artists were.