Can you draw better than a 40,000 year old? Stencils of hands in a cave in Indonesia (AP Photo / Kinez Riza, Nature Magazine)
Can you draw better than a 40,000 year old?
Lexile

Ancient cave drawings in Indonesia are as old as famous prehistoric art in Europe. Our ancestors were drawing all over the world 40,000 years ago, according to a study.

And it hints at an even earlier dawn of creativity in modern humans than scientists had thought.

Archaeologists have calculated that a dozen stencils of hands in mulberry red and two detailed drawings of an animal described as a "pig-deer" are between 35,000 to 40,000 years old. The age is determined by the levels of decay in the element uranium. That puts the art found in Sulawesi, southeast of Borneo, in the same rough time period as drawings found in Spain and a famous cave in France.

And one of the Indonesian handprints, pegged as at least 39,900 years old, is now the oldest hand stencil known to science. That's according to a study published in the journal Nature.

These are more than 100 Indonesian cave drawings. They have been known since 1950. In 2011, scientists noticed some strange outcroppings, called "cave popcorn" on the drawings. Those mineral deposits would make it possible to use new technology to figure out how old the art is. The technology is called uranium decay dating. So scientists tested the cave popcorn that had grown over the stencils that would give a minimum age. It was near 40,000 years.

"Whoa, it was not expected," said study lead author Maxime Aubert at Griffith University in Australia.

The details on the animal drawings are "really, really well-made," Aubert said. "Then when you look at it in context that it's really 40,000 years old, it's amazing."

Paleoanthropologist John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York, who wasn't part of the study, called this an important discovery. It changes what science thought about early humans and art.

Before this discovery, experts had a Europe-centric view of how, when and where humans started art, Aubert said. Knowing when art started is important.

"It kind of defines us as a species," he said.

The European and Asian art are essentially the same age. That either means art developed separately and simultaneously in different parts of the world. Or "more likely, that when humans left Africa 65,000 years ago, they were already evolved with the capacity to make paintings," Aubert said.

Ancient art hasn't been found much in Africa. The geology doesn't preserve it.

Shea and others lean toward the earlier art theory.

Critical thinking challenge: How does this discovery change the Europe-centric view of how, when and where humans started art?

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COMMENTS (255)
  • HallieJ790
    10/13/2014 - 12:05 p.m.

    Amazing! Hands down, the people living 40,000 years ago were amazing artist! I think it's so cool how archaeologist find out how long ago these drawings were made. I am amazed by how much history is in one cave!

  • EmilySchmidt4
    10/13/2014 - 12:20 p.m.

    This is cool!!! That is interesting that it is still there from like 40,000 years ago! It is quite creepy that it is still there from this long.

  • JackR-5
    10/13/2014 - 12:22 p.m.

    Ancient art has been found in Indonesia. In caves over 40,000 years ago, cavemen used to carve and paint pictures on the walls. These are then dated by scientists using uranium Decay to find out how long these paintings have been there. These paintings are more famous than ancient European paintings. Sometimes they even find handprints in the caves. Scientists have found over 100 different paintings in these caves.ancient art is mostly not found in Africa because the rocks cannot preserve the art. I think the advancements in science to discover how old these paintings are is amazing. How could people find these paintings that are preserved for over 40,000 years. They are probably extremely decayed and extremely faint.

  • KathyBuns
    10/13/2014 - 01:00 p.m.

    That's some old art, and to find it still preserved after such a long time? I would like to see one of them. I think its great that we try to find out our past to see if we can figure other things out as well. It's too bad that it will have to take a long time before finding another piece of great art.

  • A.R.S
    10/13/2014 - 01:39 p.m.

    That is cool, I wonder if they will find more ancient art. It is amazing that it has lasted 4,000 years. It is awesome that they found a animal drawing too.

  • jake222444
    10/13/2014 - 02:09 p.m.

    I don't think that ancient cave drawings should be sold, auctioned, or traded in any way. I think they belong in a museum or somewhere where archaeologists can study them. I think if art was found in Africa, there would be much more history to discover and learn.

  • John0724-YYCA
    10/13/2014 - 09:07 p.m.

    Well I don't think these arts are beautiful because they are like some stick figures that have some weapons and attacking animals. But I don't know why they want to study it. But the technology they use for figuring out when this happened is really cool. But 40,000 years ago that is a whole lot of time before I was born. But I wonder how the indians make handprints and other drawings on a hard wall? Maybe they carved it with there weapons.

  • SarahV-Cal
    10/13/2014 - 09:28 p.m.

    I think that its pretty cool how people can trace back like 1,000,000 years ago into prehistoric times. I really want to see what it would be like 1,000,000 years from now. If like all that the people drew were scribbles and that's what they called art.

  • AnnaC-Cal
    10/13/2014 - 09:58 p.m.

    I know I can't draw better then them because I havnt had much experience with paints and drawin in jenral but I do doodle some times.

  • MaggieM-3
    10/13/2014 - 10:02 p.m.

    Prehistoric people were making art 40,000 years ago. A new type of technology allowed people to more accurately find the age of the art pieces which really surprised historians. This art work is found in a cave in Indonesia, in 2011 some scientists noticed what is called cave popcorn on the drawings and this cave popcorn made it possible to use the new technology uranium decay dating which brought up the incredible number of 40,000. Both European and Asian art are nearly the same age and there is two theories as to why. One theory is that the both developed at the same time in different places. The other theory is that people moved from Africa with the evolved enough brain to appreciate art. I think that it is incredible that people were painting 40,000 years ago. I also agree with the theory that humans left Africa with the capability to produce art because, art is a very big part of being human and it seems unlikely that people living in totally different parts of the world would come up with similar types of art, if people developed art on there own they would probably evolve into a totally different species.

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