40,000-year-old cave art may be world's oldest animal drawing

 With a minimum age of 40,000 years, a trio of cow-like creatures, seen here in a composite image, is considered to be the oldest figurative artwork yet found.  PHOTOGRAPH BY LUC-HENRI FAGE

With a minimum age of 40,000 years, a trio of cow-like creatures, seen here in a composite image, is considered to be the oldest figurative artwork yet found.

PHOTOGRAPH BY LUC-HENRI FAGE

COUNTLESS CAVES PERCH atop the steep-sided mountains of East Kalimantan in Indonesia, on the island of Borneo. Draped in stone sheets and spindles, these natural limestone cathedrals showcase geology at its best. But tucked within the outcrops is something even more spectacular: a vast and ancient gallery of cave art.

Hundreds of hands wave in outline from the ceilings, fingers outstretched inside bursts of red-orange paint. Now, updated analysis of the cave walls suggests that these images stand among the earliest traces of human creativity, dating back between 52,000 and 40,000 years ago. That makes the cave art tens of thousands of years older than previously thought.

But that's not the only secret in the vast labyrinthine system.

In a cave named Lubang Jeriji Saléh, a trio of rotund cow-like creatures is sketched on the wall, with the largest standing more than seven feet across. The new dating analysis suggests that these images are at least 40,000 years old, earning them the title of the earliest figurative cave paintings yet found. The work edges out the previous title-holder—a portly babirusa, or “pig deer,” in Sulawesi, Indonesia—by just a few thousand years.

“In the entrance, there's a little chamber to the right, and it's there—bam,” says archaeologist Maxime Aubert of Griffith University. It's not the earliest cave art ever found. But unlike earlier scribbles and tracings, these paintings are unequivocal depictions of ancient animals, his team reports today in the journal Nature.

The bovines and handprints join a growing array of artwork of similar age that adorns the walls of caves around the world. These paintings mark a shift in how early humans thought about and engaged with their environment—from focusing on survival and daily mundane necessities to cultivating what could be the earliest threads of human culture, explains Paleolithic archeologist April Nowell of the University of Victoria.

“I think for a lot of us, that's a true expression of human-ness in the broadest sense of that word,” she says.

Read the full story on National Geographic’s website