Can you draw better than a 40,000 year old?
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?