Can you draw better than a 40,000 year old?
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?
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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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  • Eugene0808-YYCA
    10/13/2014 - 11:55 p.m.

    I think this is cool because we found art of humans existing 40,000 years ago. But, if there was evidence that humans evolved to make art would get us closer to finding when the earliest date of human art existed. I think that would be more amazing. I also think uranium decay dating is cool, but not accurate because it only measures how long the cave popcorn was on. The painting could have been older or younger. This would mean that scientists could be looking at art that could be older than they think it is. But still, I think this is cool because they found art that was unexpectedly 40,000 years old.
    Critical thinking challenge: How does this discovery change the Europe-centric view of how, when and where humans started art?
    Answer: This discovery changes the Europe-centric view of how, when, and where humans started art by looking at art that dated around 40,000 years ago.

  • CadenA-Cal
    10/13/2014 - 11:57 p.m.

    I cold probably not be better than a 40,000 year old artist because it said they drew all over a that means they probably had a lot of experience. Bt it also matters what material they had cause i know we have all sorts of stuff today and they didn't have all that much back then.

  • carlosh-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:34 a.m.

    I think the finding of these paintings is very important. I think this because the age of the paintings will change the way we look at ancient people.

  • austinw-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:36 a.m.

    i think it is impotent to study how ascent people study or look at things that we don't usually look at like they do or paint things like they do.

  • jaker-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:36 a.m.

    I think that is is crazy that 40,000 years ago that people are developing that much to were they can draw and that the drawings lasted that long.

  • morganlu-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:36 a.m.

    I think it is neat how we can find old artifacts and can figure out how old they are. I think that these stencils will help scientists learn more about the past and art back then.

  • nicholasd-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:37 a.m.

    i think that the drawings are cool because they lasted fourty thousand years. it would be cool to see one in real life. i am a terrible drawer

  • austins-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:37 a.m.

    It amazes me that cave paintings from 40,000 years ago have not faded away yet. It is cool that scientists can tell how old the paintings are from the outcroppings called cave popcorn.

  • janessav-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:38 a.m.

    I thought this was a great story on ancient artwork from about 40,000 years ago. I didn't know people did art work that far back in history. But, I would like to know what is cave popcorn, and why didn't the scientists see it before?

  • kiahc-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:38 a.m.

    I think it is very interesting because now we know how people use to draw back then. I also think it was a good idea to have made that new technology that helps find the age of things because now if we find a new kind of artwork we will know when it came from.

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