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Archaeologists: Oldest Cave Art Dates back 40,000 Years in Indonesia

Archaeologists working in Indonesia say prehistoric hand stencils and intricately rendered images of primitive animals – often depicted in cave art – were created nearly 40,000 years ago.

cave art

Cave art, similar to the pictured, was found in Indonesia dating back to nearly 40,000 years ago. (Photo: Wikipedia)

These images, discovered in limestone caves on the island of Sulawesi just east of Borneo, are about the same age as the earliest known cave art in the caves of northern Spain and southern France.

Originally, these Indonesian hand stencils were thought to be 10,000 years old, however this new study suggests that they were made nearly 40,000 years ago to rival old art found in Europe.

The findings were published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

“We now have 40,000-year-old rock art in Spain and Sulawesi,” said Adam Brumm, a research fellow at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, and one of the lead authors of the study. “We anticipate future rock art dating will join these two widely separated dots with similarly aged, if not earlier, art.”

The ancient Indonesian art was first reported by Dutch archaeologist in the 1950s but had never been accurately dated until this study. For decades researchers thought that the cave art was drawn during the pre-Neolithic period.

“I can say that it was a great — and very nice — surprise to read their findings,” said Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study. “‘Wow!’ was my initial reaction to the paper.”

The researchers said they had no preconceived notions of how old the cave art was when they embarked on this project three years ago. They wanted to pinpoint an accurate date.

To do that, the team relied on a relatively new technique called U-series dating, which is also used to establish minimum dates of rock art in Western Europe, reports the Los Angeles Times.

First they studied the cave for images that had small cauliflower-like growths covering them – eventually locating 14 suitable works, including 12 hand stencils and two figurative drawings.

Using a rotary tool with a diamond blade, Aubert cut into the cave art and extracted small samples that included some of the pigment of the art. The pigment layer of the sample would be at least as old as the first layer of mineral deposit that had grown on top of it.

Using this method, the archeologist determined that one of the hand stencils they samples was at least created 39,900 years ago and that a painting of a pig deer was at least 35,400 years old.

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