Oldest known animal drawing found in remote Indonesian cave

WASHINGTON (AP) — Scientists have found the oldest known example of an animal drawing: a red silhouette of a bull-like beast on the wall of a remote Indonesian cave.

The sketch is at least 40,000 years old, slightly older than similar animal paintings found in famous caves in France and Spain. Until a few years ago, experts believed Europe was where our ancestors started drawing animals and other figures.

But the age of the drawing reported Wednesday in the journal Nature, along with previous discoveries in Southeast Asia, suggest that figurative drawing appeared in both continents about the same time.

The new findings fuel discussions about whether historical or evolutionary events prompted this near-simultaneous "burst of human creativity," said lead author Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in Australia.

The remote limestones caves on Borneo have been known to contain prehistoric drawings since the 1990s. To reach them, Aubert and his team used machetes to hack through thick jungle in a verdant corner of the island.

Strapping on miners' helmets to illuminate the darkness, they walked and crawled through miles of caves decorated with hundreds of ancient designs, looking for artwork that could be dated. They needed to find specific mineral deposits on the drawings in order to determine their age with technology that measures decay of the element uranium.

"Most of the paintings we actually can't sample," said Aubert.

Aubert and his fellow researchers reported in 2014 on cave art from the neighboring Indonesian island of Sulawesi. They dated hand stencils, created by blowing red dye through a tube to capture the outline of a hand pressed against rock, to almost 40,000 years ago.

Now, with the Borneo cave art, the scientists are able to construct a rough timeline of how art developed in the area. In addition to the bull, which is about 5 feet wide, they dated red- and purple-colored hand stencils and cave paintings of human scenes.

After large animal drawings and stencils, "It seems the focus shifted to showing the human world," Aubert said.

Around 14,000 years ago, the cave-dwellers began to regularly sketch human figures doing things like dancing and hunting, often wearing large headdresses. A similar transition in rock art subjects happened in the caves of Europe.

"That's very cool, from a human point of view," said Peter Veth, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia, who was not involved in the study. "People adopted similar strategies in different environments as they became more modern."

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Replica of the Chauvet Cave in France
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Replica of the Chauvet Cave in France
FILE - A March 6, 2015 photo from files showing a visitor in the life size replica of Grotte Chauvet, or Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d’Arc, near Bollene, southern France. Since most modern humans will never get to see the masterpieces in what is widely known as the Chauvet Cave, scientists, artists and the French government have spent 56 million euros (about $60 million) and several years creating the next best thing: A near-exact replica of the cave a few hundred meters (yards) away, including more than 400 paintings of horses, bears, rhinoceros and mammoths, hand prints and carvings. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
FILE - A March 6, 2015 photo from files showing drawings of animal figures in the life size replica of Grotte Chauvet, or Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d’Arc, near Bollene, southern France. Since most modern humans will never get to see the masterpieces in what is widely known as the Chauvet Cave, scientists, artists and the French government have spent 56 million euros (about $60 million) and several years creating the next best thing: A near-exact replica of the cave a few hundred meters (yards) away, including more than 400 paintings of horses, bears, rhinoceros and mammoths, hand prints and carvings. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
FILE - A March 6, 2015 photo from files showing visitors in the life size replica of Grotte Chauvet, or Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d’Arc, near Bollene, southern France. Since most modern humans will never get to see the masterpieces in what is widely known as the Chauvet Cave, scientists, artists and the French government have spent 56 million euros (about $60 million) and several years creating the next best thing: A near-exact replica of the cave a few hundred meters (yards) away, including more than 400 paintings of horses, bears, rhinoceros and mammoths, hand prints and carvings. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
FILE - A March 6, 2015 photo from files showing visitors in the life size replica of Grotte Chauvet, or Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d’Arc, near Bollene, southern France. Since most modern humans will never get to see the masterpieces in what is widely known as the Chauvet Cave, scientists, artists and the French government have spent 56 million euros (about $60 million) and several years creating the next best thing: A near-exact replica of the cave a few hundred meters (yards) away, including more than 400 paintings of horses, bears, rhinoceros and mammoths, hand prints and carvings. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
FILE - A March 6, 2015 photo from files showing drawings of animal figures in the life size replica of Grotte Chauvet, or Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d’Arc, near Bollene, southern France. Since most modern humans will never get to see the masterpieces in what is widely known as the Chauvet Cave, scientists, artists and the French government have spent 56 million euros (about $60 million) and several years creating the next best thing: A near-exact replica of the cave a few hundred meters (yards) away, including more than 400 paintings of horses, bears, rhinoceros and mammoths, hand prints and carvings. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
A replica of pre-historic drawings showing lions is seen on a wall during a press visit at the site of the Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project in Vallon Pont d'Arc April 8, 2015. The Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project is a replica of the pre-historic Decorated Cave of Pont-d'Arc known as Grotte Chauvet, in Vallon Pont-d'Arc in the Ardeche region, containing the world's earliest known art which was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The facsimile cavern, which condenses some 8000m2 of the original site into 3000m2, will display faithful reproductions of paintings and engravings and will be inaugurated on April 10 and will open to the public on April 25. REUTERS/Robert Pratta
Visitors look at a replica of pre-historic drawings on a wall during a press visit at the site of the Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project in Vallon Pont d'Arc April 8, 2015. The Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project is a replica of the pre-historic Decorated Cave of Pont-d'Arc known as Grotte Chauvet, in Vallon Pont-d'Arc in the Ardeche region, containing the world's earliest known art which was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The facsimile cavern, which condenses some 8000m2 of the original site into 3000m2, will display faithful reproductions of paintings and engravings and will be inaugurated on April 10 and will open to the public on April 25. REUTERS/Robert Pratta
A view shows the site of the Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project during a press visit in Vallon Pont d'Arc April 8, 2015. The Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project is a replica of the pre-historic Decorated Cave of Pont-d'Arc known as Grotte Chauvet, in Vallon Pont-d'Arc in the Ardeche region, containing the world's earliest known art which was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The facsimile cavern, which condenses some 8000m2 of the original site into 3000m2, will display faithful reproductions of paintings and engravings and will be inaugurated on April 10 and will open to the public on April 25. REUTERS/Robert Pratta
A replica of pre-historic engravings showing a horse and an owl are seen on wall during a press visit at the site of the Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project in Vallon Pont d'Arc April 8, 2015. The Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project is a replica of the pre-historic Decorated Cave of Pont-d'Arc known as Grotte Chauvet, in Vallon Pont-d'Arc in the Ardeche region, containing the world's earliest known art which was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The facsimile cavern, which condenses some 8000m2 of the original site into 3000m2, will display faithful reproductions of paintings and engravings and will be inaugurated on April 10 and will open to the public on April 25. REUTERS/Robert Pratta
A replica of a pre-historic drawing showing a bison is seen on a wall at the site of the Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project in Vallon Pont d'Arc, June 26, 2014. The Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project is a replica of the pre-historic Decorated Cave of Pont-d'Arc known as Grotte Chauvet, in Vallon Pont-d'Arc in the Ardeche region, containing the world's earliest known art which was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The facsimile cavern, which condenses some 8000m2 of the original site into 3000m2, will display faithful reproductions of paintings and engravings and is planned to open to the public in Spring 2015. Picture taken 26, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Pratta (FRANCE - Tags: SOCIETY ANIMALS)
A technician works on the surface of a wall at the site of the Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project in Vallon Pont d'Arc, June 26, 2014. The Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project is a replica of the pre-historic Decorated Cave of Pont-d'Arc known as Grotte Chauvet, in Vallon Pont-d'Arc in the Ardeche region, containing the world's earliest known art which was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The facsimile cavern, which condenses some 8000m2 of the original site into 3000m2, will display faithful reproductions of paintings and engravings and is planned to open to the public in Spring 2015. Picture taken June 26, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Pratta (FRANCE - Tags: SOCIETY)
A technician works on the surface of a wall at the site of the Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project in Vallon Pont d'Arc, June 26, 2014. The Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project is a replica of the pre-historic Decorated Cave of Pont-d'Arc known as Grotte Chauvet, in Vallon Pont-d'Arc in the Ardeche region, containing the world's earliest known art which was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The facsimile cavern, which condenses some 8000m2 of the original site into 3000m2, will display faithful reproductions of paintings and engravings and is planned to open to the public in Spring 2015. Picture taken June 26, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Pratta (FRANCE - Tags: SOCIETY)
A worker uses a brush to prepare the surface of a wall at the site of the Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project in Vallon Pont d'Arc, June 26, 2014. The Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project is a replica of the pre-historic Decorated Cave of Pont-d'Arc known as Grotte Chauvet, in Vallon Pont-d'Arc in the Ardeche region, containing the world's earliest known art which was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The facsimile cavern, which condenses some 8000m2 of the original site into 3000m2, will display faithful reproductions of paintings and engravings and is planned to open to the public in Spring 2015. Picture taken June 26, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Pratta (FRANCE - Tags: SOCIETY)
A technician works on the surface of a wall showing replica of pre-historic animals drawings at the site of the Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project in Vallon Pont d'Arc, June 26, 2014. The Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project is a replica of the pre-historic Decorated Cave of Pont-d'Arc known as Grotte Chauvet, in Vallon Pont-d'Arc in the Ardeche region, containing the world's earliest known art which was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The facsimile cavern, which condenses some 8000m2 of the original site into 3000m2, will display faithful reproductions of paintings and engravings and is planned to open to the public in Spring 2015. Picture taken June 26, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Pratta (FRANCE - Tags: SOCIETY)
VALLON PONT D'ARC, FRANCE - MARCH 20: The full-size reproduction of Chauvet cave, an underground environment identical to the original that contains the world's oldest known cave paintings, on March 20, 2015 in Vallon Pont d'Arc,France. The Chauvet-Pont d'Arc cave is oldest known decorated cave in the world, featuring prehistoric wall paintings, engravings and hand prints that are believed to be around 36,000 years old. UNESCO classified the Chauvet cave as a World Heritage site in June 2014. The cave, discovered on December 18, 1994, is closed to all except for scientists working at the site to protect its fragile contents and atmosphere. An reconstruction has been built, which faithfully reproduces the decorations and atmosphere of the original, as part of the 50 million Euro 'Espace de Restitution de la Grotte Chauvet' (ERGC) project. The project, built on an 8 hectare site in the hills of the Vallon-Pont-d'Arc near to the original cave, will offer other visitor facilities including a discovery centre, exhibitions, an educational area, restaurant and shop. The replica, the largest in Europe, will open to the public on April 10, 2015 and expects to welcome 300,000-400,000 visitors from around the world each year. (Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)
VALLON PONT D'ARC, FRANCE - MARCH 20: A view of the full-size reproduction of the Chauvet cave, an underground environment identical to the original that contains the world's oldest known cave paintings, on March 20, 2015 in Vallon Pont d'Arc, France. The Chauvet-Pont d'Arc cave is oldest known decorated cave in the world, featuring prehistoric wall paintings, engravings and hand prints that are believed to be around 36,000 years old. UNESCO classified the Chauvet cave as a World Heritage site in June 2014. The cave, discovered on December 18, 1994, is closed to all except for scientists working at the site to protect its fragile contents and atmosphere. An reconstruction has been built, which faithfully reproduces the decorations and atmosphere of the original, as part of the 50 million Euro 'Espace de Restitution de la Grotte Chauvet' (ERGC) project. The project, built on an 8 hectare site in the hills of the Vallon-Pont-d'Arc near to the original cave, will offer other visitor facilities including a discovery centre, exhibitions, an educational area, restaurant and shop. The replica, the largest in Europe, will open to the public on April 10, 2015 and expects to welcome 300,000-400,000 visitors from around the world each year. (Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)
VALLON PONT D'ARC, FRANCE - MARCH 20: The full-size reproduction of Chauvet cave, an underground environment identical to the original that contains the world's oldest known cave paintings, on March 20, 2015 in Vallon Pont d'Arc,France. The Chauvet-Pont d'Arc cave is oldest known decorated cave in the world, featuring prehistoric wall paintings, engravings and hand prints that are believed to be around 36,000 years old. UNESCO classified the Chauvet cave as a World Heritage site in June 2014. The cave, discovered on December 18, 1994, is closed to all except for scientists working at the site to protect its fragile contents and atmosphere. A reconstruction has been built, which faithfully reproduces the decorations and atmosphere of the original, as part of the part of the 50 million Euro 'Espace de Restitution de la Grotte Chauvet' (ERGC) project. The project, built on an 8 hectare site in the hills of the Vallon-Pont-d'Arc near to the original cave, will offer other visitor facilities including a discovery centre, exhibitions, an educational area, restaurant and shop. The replica, the largest in Europe, will open to the public on April 10, 2015 and expects to welcome 300,000-400,000 visitors from around the world each year. (Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)
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The island of Borneo was still connected to mainland Southeast Asia when the first figurative drawings were made about 40,000 years ago — which is also about the time that the first modern humans arrived in Europe. The earliest drawings of animals in the French cave of Chauvet have been dated to about 33,500 to 37,000 years ago.

Whether new waves of people migrating from Africa brought the skills of figurative cave painting with them, or whether these arts emerged later, remains unclear. Scientists have only a partial record of global rock art. The earliest cave etchings have been found in Africa and include abstract designs, like crosshatches, dating to around 73,000 years ago.

The next stage of research in Indonesia will include excavations to learn more about the people who made these paintings. A few sites have already been identified, containing human bones, prehistoric jewelry and remains of small animals.

As for the red bull, its meaning remains a mystery.

"We think it wasn't just food for them — it meant something special," said Aubert.

___

The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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