Media Releases
08/10/2014

Scientists find Indonesian cave art is among the world’s oldest 

A team of Indonesian and Australian scientists has dated some of the world’s earliest known cave art on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, challenging the commonly held view that Europeans were the first to produce rock art.

Thomas Sutikna and Anthony Dossetto
UOW scientists Mr Thomas Sutikna (left) and Dr Anthony Dosseto. 

The team dated 12 hand stencils and two figurative animal depictions at seven cave sites in the limestone ‘tower karst’ of southwest Sulawesi, with the earliest image (a hand stencil) being at least 40,000 years old. The findings are published today (9 October) in the prestigious journal Nature.

The Sulawesi project builds on decades of research carried out by Indonesian and European archaeologists, and more recently by the late Professor Mike Morwood from UOW's Centre for Archaeological Science, where many of the team members involved in this discovery are based.

Co-author of the paper, Thomas Sutikna, who is completing a PhD at UOW’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, was part of the Indonesian team that uncovered the new species of tiny human nicknamed ‘the Hobbit’ ten years ago. He said this latest finding holds important implications for theories of human evolution.

“Rock art is one of the first indicators of an abstract mind – the onset of being human as we know it,” he said.

Historically, archaeologists have thought that rock art first emerged in Europe, with a minimum age of 41,000 years for the oldest dated rock art in the world – a painting of a red disk at El Castillo in Spain.

Co-author of the Nature paper, Dr Anthony Dosseto, Director of UOW’s Wollongong Isotope Geochronology Laboratory, said the discovery shows that at the same time as Europeans were expressing themselves on cave walls, people in Sulawesi were doing the same.

“Europeans can’t exclusively claim to be the first to develop an abstract mind anymore. They need to share this, at least, with the early inhabitants of Indonesia,” Dr Dosseto said.

Mr Sutikna said the finding suggests that figurative art may have been part of the cultural repertoire of his ancient Indonesian ancestors – the first modern human populations to reach this region more than 40,000 years ago.

“Rock art might have emerged independently at about the same time in early modern human populations in Europe and Southeast Asia, or it might have been widely practiced by the first modern humans to leave Africa tens of thousands of years earlier – if so, then animal art could have much deeper origins.”

Hand-stencils-and-painting-of-a-wild-pig-at-Leang-Pettakere-MUST-CREDT-Anthony-Dosseto
Hand stencils and-painting of a wild pig at Leang Pettakere. Photo: Anthony Dosseto. 

The rock art was dated using a method based on the radioactive decay of minute amounts of uranium in the mineral crusts formed on top of some of the cave paintings. The dating was carried out at UOW’s Wollongong Isotope Geochronology Laboratory and in the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University.

Other UOW team members involved in the project include Dr Max Aubert and Dr Adam Brumm (both now based at Griffith University), Dr Gert van den Bergh and the late Professor Mike Morwood.

Note to media: Images can be downloaded from http://bit.ly/10nbpi0.

Media contact: For further information and images, please contact Thomas Sutikna, +61 423 630 449, ts788@uowmail.edu.au, or Dr Anthony Dosseto, +61 432 578 321 or tonyd@uow.edu.au. For general media enquiries, please contact Elise Pitt, Media & PR Officer, UOW, +61 2 4221 3079, +61 422 959 953, epitt@uow.edu.au

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