Indonesian Cave Paintings As Old As Europe's Ancient Art Figures found on the walls of a prehistoric cave in Indonesia are at least 35,400 years old or more, scientists say. That might mean the earliest art developed independently in different regions.

Indonesian Cave Paintings As Old As Europe's Ancient Art

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Cave paintings have a way of capturing the imagination. Seeing a prehistoric image of a horse or mammoth on a cave wall allows us to emotionally connect to the people who made those paintings tens of thousands of years ago. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that a new discovery about cave art in Indonesia is now challenging scientists' long-held ideas about the first cave artists.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The most famous painted caves are in Europe, but for decades researchers have also known about artwork on the walls of limestone caves and rock shelters on an Indonesian island called Sulawesi.

MATT TOCHERI: Some of these pieces are hand stencils so basically they've outlined the shape of their hands on the cave wall.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Matt Tocheri is with the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. He says other cave paintings there show local animals, like the babirusa...

TOCHERI: Which is a very interesting pig that is only found on Sulawesi.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The animals are shown in profile. The artist drew little lines with red pigment to show the hair on their fat bodies. The artwork generally isn't well-preserved. Researchers thought these paintings must be relatively recent because the tropical environment would degrade things quickly. They figured these paintings had to be less than 10,000 years old.

TOCHERI: The truth of it was no one had really tried to date it. It's not easy to date rock art.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A group of Indonesian and Australian researchers has now done a new analysis. They looked at mineral deposits that formed on top of the artwork. These mineral deposits look like tiny little cauliflowers. They're sometimes called cave popcorn.

Alistair Pike, at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, has studied the age of European cave paintings using the same method.

ALISTAIR PIKE: We're dating things formed on top of the paintings rather than the pigments of the paintings themselves.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says what was found in the Indonesian caves was surprising. One hand stencil is more than 39,000 years old. One painting of that pig-like animal is more than 35,000 years old. In the journal Nature, the research team reports on art from seven cave sites. They say it's all about the same age as the earliest cave paintings in Europe. And Pike says this is a huge deal.

PIKE: Because up until now, we've always believed that cave painting was part of a suite of complex symbolic behavior that humans invented in Europe.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's possible that cave painting developed independently in both Europe and Indonesia at the same time, but Pike thinks it's likely that the origin was earlier and somewhere else.

PIKE: And then individuals moved east to (unintelligible) to Europe, taking the tradition of painting caves with them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Cave painting traditions might actually stretch way, way back. John Shea is an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York.

JOHN SHEA: I think it's probably the case that the very first humans - the first people who looked like us, lived 200,000 years ago - had these abilities.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says these people lived in Africa, but unlike Europe which has deep, cold caves that are excellent for preserving artwork...

SHEA: Africa's hot and wet and the caves tend to be fairly shallow and the surfaces of the caves tended to decompose fairly rapidly.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Shea points to one site in southern Africa where archaeologists found 30,000-year-old images of animals drawn on rock slabs. And even more ancient sites in Africa showed that people were making beads and using colored pigments, presumably to decorate themselves, if not the walls of their home.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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