Prehistoric Paintings in Indonesia May Be Oldest Cave Art Ever

Oct 14, 2014

Credit: Kinez Riza

By Megan Gannon

Paintings of miniature buffalos, warty pigs and human hands covering the walls and ceilings of caves in Indonesia could be among the oldest examples of cave art in the world, a new study finds.

The paintings — some of which might be more than 40,000 years old — challenge Europe’s standing as the birthplace of prehistoric art.

“It was previously thought that Western Europe was the centerpiece of a ‘symbolic explosion’ in early human artistic activity, such as cave painting and other forms of image making, including figurative art, around 40,000 years ago,” said study leader Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Australia’s Griffith University. “However, our findings show that cave art was made at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world at about the same time, suggesting these practices have deeper origins — perhaps in Africa before our species left this continent and spread across the globe.”

Sulawesi caves

The paintings were found in the karst caves of Sulawesi, an island just east of Borneo with four long peninsulas that radiate like flower petals. Archaeologists have known about the cave art for decades. They’ve also found shellfish, animal bones, pigment-stained stone tools and even ochre “crayons” inside these caverns.

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45 comments on “Prehistoric Paintings in Indonesia May Be Oldest Cave Art Ever

  • Modesti Oct 15, 2014 at 4:43 am

    Somehow I don’t like that cave drawings are called art. Prehistoric drawings are result of hallucinations,

    What??? They are usually drawings of the animals they were familiar with and had observed.

    and I consider art to be conscious action.

    Surely recording them – perhaps to communicate targets for a hunt was a conscious action.

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  • 3
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    Prehistoric drawings are result of hallucinations, and I consider art to be conscious action.

    Even admitting that the paintings were somehow inspired by hallucinations, which is less than certain considering that the subject of those paintings is usually of the sort found in figurative art, the act of reproducing those “hallucinations” on a cave wall with paint is still a “conscious action” and therefore constitutes artistic creation by definition.

    If one were to judge the validity of art by your logic, then one would have to disqualify many of Van Gogh’s paintings as actual art since several of them were inspired by the hallucinations caused by his schizophrenic condition.

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  • That’s one hypothesis I suppose and does have some credence – but what about the art/paintings that were done at the same time that would have been exposed – and thus erased by time!
    What has the religious inclination of Picasso’s merchant have to do with anything? Your hypothesis that artistic appreciation is driven by it’s monetary value – how can you prove that?

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  • . Somehow I don’t like that cave drawings are called art. Prehistoric drawings are result of hallucinations, and I consider art to be conscious action. 🙂

    I don’t see the act of making a hand-stencil as having anything at all to do with a hallucination. It’s more likely a ritual performed by visiting tribes or members of a different generation. At a stretch the miniature buffalos or warty-pigs could be dreamed up whilst high on some local vegetation though I think not.
    It’s a great find anyway.

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  • When I look at the hand-stencils, all I see is a tribe whiling away the hours where each one says “do mine next” and feels like one of the gang. I am not happy with giving everything a ritual significance. All work and no play and all that…… Just the way I feel when I look at them that’s all.

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  • Similiar hand stencils, and more comprehensive ochre paintings are very accessible at Canarvon Gorge, Queensland.

    They include depictions of small animals, tools, vulvas (by the hundreds,) weapons, and enigmatic patterns that may represent fish traps. They are nowhere near as old as those in Indonesia, but the broad similarity is striking, and the wind eroded sandstone cliffs that they are on would be by no means as permanent a canvas as the Indonesian caves.

    It is easy to presume many, many previous layers of drawings long vanished. The cultural parallels are striking, although I see no reason to invoke hallucinations, but rather a record of people meeting, celebrating, and marking their presence on the land.

    It is a National P ark now, and while in danger of being loved to death, it is a place where the mystery and wonder of the roughly 50,000 years of human presence in Australia stares back at you across the eons.

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  • Olgun.
    I agree with the scenario you’ve painted, with the tribe members waiting eagerly for their ‘turn’ but I’m afraid we need to look to the practices mention by JC Sheepdog in the following comment. The Australian Aboriginal people share many cultural traits with the original inhabitants of Indonesia. These early Australians used handstencilling as a ritual in the manner I described. Some examples of these have been stenciled and re-stenciled many times over the millennia.
    The aboriginal people were nomadic hunters and gatherers. The course of their journeys would take a well-trodden route going from one known food source to the next. Along the way they would encounter spots of religious significance. In these places they would ‘leave their mark’ probably as a tribute to the ancestors.

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  • I see the aboriginal paintings as a different scenario Nitya and very interesting. Again I can only act on impulse and am sure any experts here will put me straight, but I see the aboriginal paintings as a notice board for nomadic individuals or groups and the caves as more of a permanent residence. After reading about the song lines I can see how people would leave their mark and message as to how many they were and what they caught. The cave dwellers might have had a more reliable source so no need to move but rather hide and protect themselves from the night. The fact that the aboriginal painting are on the outside may have a significance. It seems the aboriginal people had more sexual equality as well with women maybe wanting to advertise their presence. I can’t help but link it to the Post- it stickers left by the protestors in Hong Kong recently.

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  • . Olgun. the caves as more of a permanent residence.

    I doubt very much if this would be the case. Food would have been more abundant in Indonesia but I seriously doubt that any form of permanent residence could be established 40,000 years ago. Any area would be depleted of supplies pretty quickly and the tribe would be compelled to move on and give the environment time to regenerate.
    If a static existence had been the norm I think a primitive level of farming would have developed.

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  • Maybe Nitya but I am going on the size of the cave and the number of hand-stencils. Sustainable for a small tribe….maybe? Farming would only be needed for larger groups.

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  • I need to make an amendment to ‘one food source to another’. The more pressing need was for a secure supply of water. Once again this would not have been a problem in Indonesia to my knowledge.

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  • Nitya,
    When you look at the timeline, 40,000 years, for the paintings in Indonesia, and a similar period of human occupation of Australia, and the identical nature of the stencilled “ochre puffed” hands, these may well have been the same, not just “similar” people.

    Agriculture did exist in New Guinea highlands, above the mosquito line , and therefore above the malaria line, as long ago as 40,000 years, in the form of semi permanent gardens that grew yams and other tubers. Possibly the earliest known instance of organised agriculture, albeit neglected when the origins of agriculture are discussed due to its geographic isolation.

    But, is it “Aaht, Daahling?” I am not so sure. The Spanish cave paintings convey an obvious content of beauty, in their deliberate exaggeration of form, and even motion, in the repeated slowly varying superimposed “stills.” Fascinatingly, I recall an American student who showed in a computer reconstruction, and based on the location of the hearths, how by dancing and throwing shadows on the cave walls, a depicted animal could be made to “run” around the cave walls. That, definitely, is art, and bloody good art at that.

    Carnavon struck me as being far more a recording of “Here I am.” The superimposition of layers of hand stencils belies artistic content. Or, from the vulvas, “This is where I gave birth,” or more crudely, “this is where I got lucky.” From the “fish traps” (it is a long way from the ocean) it could be “We, the fish trap people were here,” and so on.
    All this is of course totally fanciful, and any number of guesses can be tossed in, but they would all seem to be more aligned with recording events, rather than ritualistic or artistic expression.

    BTW, there is some pretty solid recent writing that speaks to the Australian aborigines actually using far more sophisticated agricultural techniques than the “landless nomads” definition that we, the European occupiers of the land, like to imagine, with our imported crops, stock, and feed crops that have obliterated all trace of the previous ancient culture in the land.

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  • JC Sheepdog.
    There have been various interpretations about the similarities between the culture of Australian Aborigines and the original inhabitants of Indonesia. At one point the accepted wisdom was that of a land bridge to our continent. Later thinking seemed to suggest an exchange of customs and artefacts due to trade.
    The most recent knowledge I have on the subject is that our aboriginal inhabitants came in various waves of settlement over the course of 40,000 years and from different areas. There are similar cave paintings in Sth America so I’m not quite sure what we can make of that. An actual connection with Sth America has not been established beyond doubt.

    The caves were painted such a long time ago that it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what their motives were. I think it’s a pretty safe guess that their would have been a religious component.

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  • Really trying to reply to post above this, but there is no “reply” button for it. Ah well. Just a quick response to your comment re a religious component, which I agree is likely, and some of the Canarvon Gorge paintings are more suggestive than others.

    Geoffrey Blainey, in “Triumph of the Nomads,” makes the case that the Aboriginal people spent much less time securing food than Europeans at the time of contact, and were healthier. Much of their time was spent in ritual, or moving, or just hanging out.

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  • They are art because they use a medium to represent recognizable visual forms through the invented language of line and color. Whether they were executed while hallucinating or not has nothing to do with anything.

    These people were among the very first to to realize that making certain marks in ochre or charcoal could essentially reproduce and capture the essence of things in their daily lives in a way that was recognizable to everyone. It was a tremendous creative and conceptual leap and must have seemed like magic. They could basically take the internal and subjective image of these animals that existed inside their heads and bring them into the world at will in a way that everyone else could understand. So an individual’s internal image could be made into a communal experience.

    I think it was Picasso who said that the prehistoric cave paintings are the only true art that humans have ever made. Everything since then has been imitation.

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  • JC Sheepdog.
    Ah ….THE Geoffrey Blainey! I know of him through his other well-publicised views. I’m glad he has a good side.
    It comes as a great surprise to learn of their ability to find sufficient food, but they had some fascinating methods of passing on information. I find every part of their traditional culture extremely interesting. They would have had a varied, low fat diet eating the ‘bush tucker’ also, plenty of exercise. Little surprise that they were in better health .Also of interest was their method of finding water!
    I love the inclusive nature of their traditional ‘art’ work and their involvement in song and dance. They were all ‘artists’. I think we can infer that the Indonesian drawings would have had a similar theme. ( Perhaps they had some female deities?)

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  • Yup,
    THAT Geoffrey Blainey! There sometimes is a grain or two amongst the chaff. There is also an axiom that when a culture changes zero to very little over 50,000 years, maybe it is doing something right.

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  • 25
    Light Wave says:

    Just to be clear ….there was never a land bridge to australia from Indonesia….check the wallace line …which is a deep channel that has always been a deep channel…and considering australia was slightly further away from indonesia 40. 000 years ago….the land bridge theory is even more presumptious …..boating with rafts musn’t have been too difficult.. Because they got to australia didnt they……..if they could create art they could create allsorts of imaginative kit…

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  • Hi Lightwave. I’m so glad you’ve showed up! As I recall, you had some really valuable insights regarding this topic. Caused me to change my opinions and do extra reading! Always a good outcome.

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  • And they, the Australian Aborigines got to Australia a long, long time ago. DNA research shows they are second only in antiquity on the planet to the African Saan people in Africa. This is from a 2010 news article.

    Scientists say an Aboriginal rock art depiction of an extinct giant bird could be Australia’s oldest painting.
    The red ochre painting, which depicts two emu-like birds with their necks outstretched, could date back to the earliest days of settlement on the continent. It was rediscovered at the centre of the Arnhem Land plateau about two years ago, but archaeologists first visited the site a fortnight ago. A palaeontologist has confirmed the animals depicted are the megafauna species Genyornis. Archaeologist Ben Gunn said the giant birds became extinct more than 40,000 years ago. “The details on this painting indicate that it was done by someone who knew that animal very well,” he said.

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  • I do not know why my reply to Alan4discussion and NearlyNakedApe was not published on 15. October, but I explained my point of view. I explained that prehistoric drawings are usualy found in deep dark places in caves, and if they were ment to be drawn with an intention they would surely be somwhere when everyone can see them. Prehistoric people drew their pictures (as it was explained in BBC documentary How Art made the world: The day pictures were born), as a result of their altered consciousness because of sensory deprivation deep in the dark cave. They have just copied pictures they saw during hallucinations. That is why I said that I do not consider their drawings to be art, they copied not knowing why.

    But topic has developed, and it is interesting.

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  • I think we should also think about how well these hunters must have known the animals they hunted. To maximise the hunt, to keep safe, to know seasonal changes. Some of these paintings could have been instructional. A way to pass on the knowledge. To show people where they should be and at what point to work as a successful team. Explain the body language of an animal to know when it us about to attack and when it will run. Which animal will stand its ground. All hunting animals use these skills and maybe with the ability of language and instruction we got to the top of the tree.

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  • 33
    Light Wave says:

    Hi Nitya that’s a great result…hope extra reading was mind expanding….there’s no doubt that some aboriginal Australians came from the Indonesian region…..the two regions of Sahul (Australia and New Guinea joined) and Sunda land (Indonesia, Borneo and most of the smaller islands ) were both once land masses above water…there were vast regions between the two which were basically wetlands – New Guinea may also have as yet undiscovered rock and cave art…not forgetting that Indonesia 40,000 years ago was more likely to have been populated with Afronesian type people as in New Guinea and not the current Indonesian peoples…what do you think Nitya

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  • Hi Lightwave. On appearance, the modern day Indonesians do not share any obvious similarities with our native inhabitants. I haven’t checked because I wanted to answer straight away, but I’d imagine they ( Indonesian) are genetically and culturally linked to the Indian subcontinent. They share similarities and legends with the people of Sri Lanka. I’m not sure, but linguistic clues would probably place the current day inhabitants on a wave of people from the north.

    We are going back a very long way so there may have been several waves of migration. Indonesia is made up of so many islands and the people are not all the same. Bali has different cultural influences to that the main island, for example.

    Some of our people to the north have similarities with the Melanesian people of Papua New Guinea. It’s thought that there was some degree of ‘island hopping’ , and there was definitely contact as it’s a short boat trip in some places.

    Finding evidence of Homo Floresiensis ( Flo) has added an interesting dimension to the history of the region.

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  • 35
    Light Wave says:

    The two early rock and cave art producing regions have more than just mother Africa in common, they both also had older ‘human’ populations already living there when the first sapiens entered those regions 40, 000 years ago at least…Neanderthal and Denislovan …perhaps the mixing of genes caused the resulting new sapiens to express their creativity….that’s just a possible theory of mine….most non African sapiens have at least 2- 4% of Neanderthal DNA currently….. but 40,000 years ago the % of Neanderthal DNA may have been much higher in non african early sapiens. Denislovan genes show up more in the New Guinea and Australian people

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  • Hi Nitya. It’s my understanding that Australian Aborigines are from one of the earliest “Out of Africa” migrations. 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. They predate the South East Asia populations by thousands of years. Similarly, the Melanesian nations have more in common with Australian Aborigines than the South East Asians. Bali has a surviving Hindu community reflecting its origins. Hindu shrines can be found all over Indonesia, but Hinduism has been replaced by Islam.

    Have you heard of the Denisovians. A race of early hominids, closely related to Homo Sapiens, but different. Not as different as Neanderthal, but still a distinctly different race. When they look at the DNA of the Denisovians, they find between 3=5% match with Australian Aborigines and Papua New Guinea highlanders. This makes our Australian Aborigines a very ancient culture.

    Analysis of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of the finger bone showed it to be genetically distinct from the mtDNAs of Neanderthals and modern humans.[4] Subsequent study of the nuclear genome from this specimen suggests that this group shares a common origin with Neanderthals, that they ranged from Siberia to Southeast Asia, and that they lived among and interbred with the ancestors of some present-day modern humans, with about 3% to 5% of the DNA of Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians deriving from Denisovans.

    New Zealand Maori are also very interesting. This from Wikipedia

    Evidence from archaeology, linguistics, and physical anthropology indicates that the first settlers came from east Polynesia and became the Māori. Language evolution studies[16] and mitochondrial DNA evidence[17] suggest that most Pacific populations originated from Taiwanese aborigines around 5,200 years ago (suggesting before migration from the Asian or Chinese mainland),[18] moving down through Southeast Asia and Indonesia.[19]

    I can’t find the reference yet, but I’ve also read that during the migration out of Taiwan, they must have picked up a population of male PNG people, because Maori males have a distinct marker common to PNG males. Fascinating stuff. Far more interesting that the bible.

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  • . David.
    . Fascinating stuff. Far more interesting that the bible.

    So true! I like the way different disciplines are used to tease out all the relevant information; DNA evidence, linguistics, cultural clues. Our story is SO interesting! So much more interesting than a set of silly stories contained in the bible or any other religious reference.

    I didn’t know of the history of the Maori people. This sounds like an interesting link to follow. I assumed they were of the same Polynesian stock as the other peoples of the Pacific. Actually, I was thinking back to the ideas of Thor Heyerdahl and his book Aku Aku.

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  • Hi Olgun. I have seen that series and I greatly admire Alice Roberts. I like her style. She has been a bit quiet of late but I always welcome her programs.

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  • This sounds like an interesting link to follow. I assumed they were of the same Polynesian stock as the other peoples of the Pacific.

    Without checking any reference, from memory I think the Maori are slightly different from the classic Polynesian through the injection of the PNG DNA. The Polynesian is more direct descent from East Asia.

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  • David. I’ve been checking the Maori history and that quite interesting as well. Their route to the antipodes came from Taiwan as you said, clipped the top of PNG and progressed south diverging in a couple of places( One branch going off to Hawaii and Easter Island). It is quite recent in comparison to Aboriginal settlement. Thanks for the info .

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  • 42
    Light Wave says:

    Hi david allen ……..I noticed that your last comment is saying pretty much what I already said on my previous comment about neanderthal and denislovan people occupying the regions where early sapiens ended up getting creative first…..could be thee connection…?

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  • I have spent a fair bit of time in Taiwan, and around the South East corner of the island, an area that is somewhat isolated, or at least was in the ’80’s when I was there, consisting of small fishing villages, and similar communities. The people are very much more Polynesian in appearance and stature than the Han Chinese of later migrations who make up the far larger part of the population.

    Even leaving aside the hard DNA evidence, the Taiwanese origin of the Pacific diaspora is apparent. Their navigational skills were extraordinary, and their proa style of vessels were fast, and easily capable of sufficient ability to sail to windward to utilize the prevailing Easterly trade wind pattern.

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  • 44
    Light Wave says:

    The taiwanese and new guinean origin of the pacific islanders only occurred around 1000 AD – and is in fact documented in the oral traditions of the maori people themselves…the most accurate mythology ever………Roughly the same time that the danish were settling in Iceland and Greenland

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  • 45
    Light Wave says:

    Are you sure about that.. Was that just a guess ? …….I would have thought Congo pygmies were second oldest to khoisan people. With aboriginal australians coming a close third along with new guinean people… fact new findings suggest basal eurasians are the oldest group outside africa…..who decended into early europeans, north eurasians and even north american natives

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