We have no idea who painted a large red animal on the walls of a remote cave in Borneo at least 40,000 years ago, but their work is the oldest known example of figurative rock art in the world, according to new research.
The painting may show a species of wild cattle called a banteng.
And it was created at least 5,000 years earlier than animal paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and caves in France, which so far believed were the oldest examples of this kind of stone.
Borneo banteng is part of a mountain art panel that contains handstones that are considered at least 37,500 years, reports a team of Australian and Indonesian researchers today in the journal Nature.
The new dates suggest figurative rock art showing the natural world developed in different parts of the world at about the same time, said Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist from Griffith University.
"We know that modern people arrived [around 40,000 years ago] in Europe, but they were in Southeast Asia at least 20,000 years before and even Australia, "said Dr. Aubert.
Rich galleries of art throughout the ages
Dr Aubert and his colleagues dated rock art from several caves in tough limestone, in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan on the eastern side of Borneo.
The caves are known to contain thousands of pictures of animals such as banteng and the extinct tapir, as well as handstiles and symbols.
The team used techniques detecting uranium and thorium levels to measure when calcium carbonate layers were deposited during and over paintings, to give them maximum and minimum dates.
"There are actually three different phases of the cave," said Aubert.
The oldest phase contains red and orange colored pigments that are used to depict large animals and create handstiles.
"We know that this phase of cave painting begins between 40,000 and 52,000 years ago," said Dr. Aubert.
The goal of painting in the Borneo caves is very similar to a painting of a babirusa or "pig deer" – formerly the oldest known animal painting – in Sulawesi.
"It's not the same animal of course, but it's the same style with big bodies and small legs," he said.
Then, at the height of the ice age between 20,000 and 21,000 years ago, there was a dramatic shift in style in Borneo cave paintings.
This phase sees a spread of mulberry-colored handstones, many of which are filled with lines or dots.
"And sometimes these handcuffs have been pulled together with lines – it actually seems like a family tree," Aubert said.
Thereafter, human figures appear in Borneo Rock Art Record for the first time, approximately 13 600 years ago.
"It seems that they transition from showing big animals to portray the human world," said Aubert.
"Sometimes it is [figures] have the big main dresses, sometimes they show dancing with different items, sometimes they are hunting. "
He said the paintings reminded him of the enigmatic Gwion Gwion rock art in northern Australia.
"But we do not mean that they are the same people who did them," he said.
The shift from animals to human paintings in Southeast Asia also occurred in Europe, he added.
"There is more and more of the human depiction of stone in Europe after the last glacial mass," he said.
The third wave of stone in Borneo caves was created with charcoal.
"We think it's associated with the first neolithic peasants who arrived there maybe 4000 years ago," said Dr. Aubert.
He said that the changes in artistic style may be due to different waves of people moving through the region, population increases or other pressures that drive innovation.
Rock art emphasizes the importance of Southeast Asia
Sue Connor, an archeologist at Australian National University, said the cave art in Sulawesi and Borneo are "some of the most important rock art anywhere in the world".
"They are not just single motives, they are not just a place, they are very rich rock art," said Professor O & Connor, an expert on Australian and South East Asian rock art, which was not involved in the study.
She said the similarity between art between Borneo and Sulawesi support models published by her team, suggesting that modern people may have taken a northern road through Southeast Asia to Australia at a time when Borneo was still part of the Asian mainland.
Even though we do not have reliable dates for Australian art, great animals were also depicted in early art in Arnhem Land.
"We know that the early naturalist style of Arnhem Land is among the oldest art, because there are other motivations behind it," said Professor O'Connor.
She said that dates from some places suggest that there was a change in Australian art towards more human figures at the end of the Ice Age, as sea levels suddenly rose between 9,000 and 12,000 years ago.
Darren Curnoe, a paleo anthropologist at the University of New South Wales, said that the new dates confirmed the importance of Southeast Asia "after many years of neglect internationally".
Dr Curnoe was not involved in this study but excavated a cave on Niah on the north side of Borneo in the Malaysian province of Sarawak.
There he has found fragments of human bones that can be between 50,000 and 55,000 years old.
"There have been major gaps in our understanding for a long time and it just comes down to the fact that it's a vast area that's not explored archaeologically," said Dr. Curnoe.
"The more [sites] we find the more it becomes apparent that the very first people who lived there were very modern in their behavior, he says.
Even though they left thousands of pictures, we do not know anything about the people who created the art of the Eastern Kalimantan caves, said Aubert.
"Next year we want to do excavations there to find out who they were and to see if we can identify this transition in archeology as well," he said.