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Indonesia Cave Paintings Rewrite History of Human Art

Oct 09, 2014 11:50 AM EDT

Ancient Indonesia cave paintings at least 40,000 years old - depicting animals and the outline of human hands - are singlehandedly rewriting the history of human art, according to a new study.

Though the existence of these prehistoric paintings was already known, scientists said Wednesday they used a highly precise method to finally determine the antiquity of the sketches. It turns out that the artwork is as old as famous prehistoric art in Europe, long thought to be the dawn of creativity that led to the art and science we know today.

"It is a really important find; it enables us to get away from this Euro-centric view of a creative explosion that was special to Europe and did not develop in other parts of the world until much later," Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, who was not involved in the study, told BBC News.

Originally discovered in seven caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, the ancient artwork consists of 12 human hand stencils and two drawings of an animal described as a "pig-deer," and the other showing what probably is a pig. The paintings, made using a pigment called red ochre to give them a mulberry color, were pegged between 35,000 and 40,000 years old. To figure out their age, scientists used a method based on the radioactive decay of tiny quantities of uranium in small mineral growths dubbed "cave popcorn" that formed on some of the paintings. Some experts previously estimated they were maybe 10,000 years old.

For decades, the only known cave art was in Spain and southern France, but this recent discovery of paintings at the opposite end of the globe suggests that there was an even earlier dawn of creativity in modern humans, going back to Africa.

Knowing when art started is important because "it kind of defines us as a species," study lead author Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in Australia, told The Associated Press.

"What this tells us is that when humans began moving out of Africa they were not all that different from us in terms of their abilities to use art and symbol," added paleoanthropologist John Shea, who was not involved in the study. "Inasmuch as many of us would have difficulty replicating such paintings, they may even have been our superiors in this respect."

The study appears in the journal Nature.

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