SCIENTISTS have found what could be the world’s oldest figurative art on Australia’s doorstep, throwing Eurocentric ideas about cultural development on their head and raising the prospects of even older artwork being identified here.An Australian-led team has dated cave art in Sulawesi at about 40,000 years old, putting it in the same vintage as the oldest known paintings in Spain and France.
The images are spread across more than 90 sites in a limestone area 45 minutes’ drive from Makassar, Indonesia’s fifth-largest city. Archeologists have known of them for more than 50 years but assumed them to be less than 10,000 years old.
Griffith University geochemist Maxime Aubert said he had first visited the site briefly, taking samples from a few caves. “I ran them in the machine and when I saw the numbers coming out, I thought, ‘Oh shit’,” he said.
The study, outlined today in Nature, dates the earliest image — a hand stencil — as at least 39,900 years old. The world’s oldest known cave painting, a red disc in Spain, is dated at 900 years older.
The Sulawesi sites also include images of pig-like animals painted more than 35,400 years ago, possibly making them older than the earliest known figurative rock art in Western Europe — a painted rhinoceros in the Chauvet Cave in France, estimated at between 35,300 and 38,800 years old.
Dr Aubert’s team obtained dates by measuring the ratio of radioactive isotopes in stalactite-like growths on top of the Sulawesi paintings, making them minimum estimates. Many European measurements were obtained through radiocarbon dating of charcoal, making them maximum estimates. “You’re not dating when the painting was done, you’re dating when the tree (that provided the charcoal) stopped growing,” he said.
He said the oldest known rock art in northern Australia was painted about 28,000 years ago, but technological advances could yield older findings. Most Australian rock art was in sandstone country, which was hard to date.
Excavations in Arnhem Land have found ochre crayons in 50,000-year-old deposits. “But we can’t prove (they were) used to make paintings,” Dr Aubert said.
He said the abundant rock art in Europe had convinced anthropologists that the human capacity for abstract thinking originated there. “That led people to believe humans became modern in Europe,” he said. “Now we know it’s not true.”
By John Ross
With thanks to The Australian
From The Australian December 21st
AN Australian rock art study has been named one of the top 10 scientific breakthroughs of the year by the influential journal Science.
The study, published in October, revealed that hand stencils and animal paintings in a cave in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi were up to four times as old as previously thought.
“The discoveries suggest that humans in Asia were producing symbolic art as early as the first European cave painters,” said the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of one of the world’s two most recognised journals.
It rated the achievement alongside pivotal studies in genetics, robotics, palaeontology and Alzheimer’s and diabetes research.
But the journal awarded top marks to the European Space Agency for landing a spacecraft on a comet.
The spacecraft Rosetta and its lander module Philae made major headlines in November when Philae touched down on the surface of the speeding comet. While the landing was rougher than expected, the data from the two space probes is already shedding new light on the formation and evolution of such comets.
“Philae’s landing was an amazing feat and got the world’s attention,” said Science news editor Tim Appenzeller. “But the whole Rosetta mission is the breakthrough. It’s giving scientists a ringside seat as a comet warms up, breathes and evolves.”
In Orbit Around A Comet, The Rosetta Spacecraft Must Now Land On It - Updated - It Has Landed And Found Organic Molecules!
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