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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  • colbyw-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:39 a.m.

    This article was very interesting to read. It also had a very good topic and it was really suprising to find out that it was 40,000 years old.

  • emilysc-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:39 a.m.

    I think that it is crazy how technology has changed dramatically. It is surprising how it has changed in about 60 years. I wonder how long it took to find out how many years to find out how old the paintings are? It is very weird how art has changed from going to rocks to paper.

  • brynnr-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:39 a.m.

    I think this is really neat how they found art that dated back 40,000 years ago. The art is gorgeous from back then it wasn't very detailed but I still understand what they wanted to say.

  • rachelmu-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:40 a.m.

    Well, I don't think that the drawings are that old, because the earth is only about 8,000 years old. So, how could paintings be 40,000 years old? They need to find a different way to find how old things are, because they're wrong.

  • calliew-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:42 a.m.

    The discovery of the artwork in Indonesia that is 30,000 to 40,000 years old is an amazing new discovery. Discovering that the minimum years of the drawing being drawn was 40,000 years ago was not expected by the paleoanthropologist leading the study.

  • kierstenc-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:46 a.m.

    It is cool that people were making art 40,000 years ago! I think that is neat that scientists figured out that it was 40,000 years old.

  • kalebv-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 11:46 a.m.

    I didn't know that we started art so long ago. I think it's cool that art has been with us for 40,000 years.I still don't get why it's so important though.

  • StephanieM-Pay
    10/14/2014 - 11:46 a.m.

    I think that the discovery of these "art works" impacted Europe buy also helping to know about how long ago did humans live and how they lived and even how they thought.Another thing I mentioned the words art work in quotation marks because i think that these people didn't really think of this as art work I think they just thought of it as part of their culture.

  • JordanOGreen
    10/14/2014 - 11:56 a.m.

    This is a very cool article! I never knew people were drawing so long ago! I'm glad that scientists have the equipment and technology to do this because it is very cool.

  • blazek-Fra
    10/14/2014 - 12:50 p.m.

    I don't think i can draw better than a 40,000 year old because i didn't have the ability to draw in the first place but i do think its pretty cool to find the drawings in the first place.

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