Oldest known figurative art found in Borneo cave

Australian and Indonesian researchers have found the world's oldest-known cave paintings on the island of Borneo. The art was painted at least 40,000 years ago, debunking the view that cave art solely existed in Europe.

Researchers have found the oldest known example of an animal painting, a red depiction of a bull on the wall of a cave in Indonesia.

In an article published by the journal Nature late Wednesday, uranium-series analysis of calcium carbonate deposits showed that animal sketches inside a Borneo limestone cave were painted at least 40,000 years ago.

That find showed that figurative art developed "most or less" simultaneously in Asia and in Europe, including in famed caves in Spain, Italy and France, said Maxime Aubert, an associate professor at Griffith University in Australia.

"Who the ice age artists of Borneo were and what happened to them is a mystery," said co-research leader Pindi Setiawan of Indonesia's Bandung Institute of Technology.

During the last ice age, when sea levels dropped as much as 120 meters (about 400 feet) compared to the present day, Borneo formed the easternmost tip of Eurasia, with Europe at its westernmost end.

"It now seems that two early cave art provinces arose at a similar time in remote corners of Paleolithic Eurasia: one in Europe and one in Indonesia," said Adam Brumm, another Griffith archaeologist involved in the study.

Boats, geometric designs

Samples from the Borneo site in Indonesia's East Kalimantan region also dated two red-orange hand stencils at 37,200 years old, and a third possibly as old as 52,000 years, study authors said.

The team identified two phases: presumed wild cattle paintings and the hand stencils, with younger, intricate drawings showing human figures, boats and geometric designs.

To carry out the uranium series dating, Aubert's team took small, one-centimeter diameter samples from the Borneo artworks as well as the underlying calcite.

Researchers came to similar conclusions on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in 2014, uncovering figurative art that was found to be more than 35,000 years old.

The oldest probable known rock art find is a cave drawing near Cape Town in South Africa, dating back 73,000 years.

Aubert said a next step would be to date ancient pieces in Australia.

Related Subjects

"Our research suggests that rock art spread from Borneo into Sulawesi and other new worlds beyond Eurasia, perhaps arriving with the first people to colonize Australia," said Aubert. "It's an intimate window into the past."


The Venus of Hohle Fels

This curvaceous lady, called the Venus of Hohle Fels, is the world's oldest depiction of a human. She is the most famous of the more than 50 figurines that remained hidden for 40,000 years in caves in the Swabian Alps. The six-centimeter mammoth ivory figurine is held at the Blaubeuren Museum of Prehistory.


Hohle Fels

Archaeologists uncovered the Venus figurine in this cave. Most of the finds in the Swabian Alps depict animals and date from the Aurignacian period. During this period Neanderthals and Homo sapiens sometimes lived next to each other and sought protection in caves.


Ach River Valley

During the Ice Age in Europe there were very few forested areas in the Swabian Alps. Mammoths and reindeer roamed the steppes. Today the region is covered with forests. Of the more than 2,000 known caves in the region, six of them have been given World Heritage status due to the discovery of impressive Ice Age art.


Geißenklösterle Cave

Three flutes found in Geißenklösterle cave have provided evidence that humans were making music as early as 40,000 years ago. Like the Venus figurine, the most beautiful ivory flute is in the Blaubeuren Museum of Prehistory. Geißenklösterle cave is fenced off and only opened on special occasions. The cave is not deep, and the spot where the flutes were found can be seen through the fence.


Sirgenstein Cave

Sirgenstein Cave, which is 42 meters long, is mostly freely accessible. However, it is closed in the winter to protect its resident bats. Archaeologists discovered that prehistoric humans spent most of their time near the cave's entrance, where they built fires, worked and slept. More recently, around 500 years ago, local people believed that a one-eyed monster lived in the cave.


Lone River Valley

The three other caves nominated for World Heritage status are situated in the Lone Valley near Heidenheim: Vogelherd, Hohlenstein-Stadel and Bockstein. As in the Ach Valley, a protected zone has been set up. This means that no changes can be made to the caves without informing the regional office for the preservation of monuments.



The excavations in the caves in the Swabian Alps began in the 19th century. Archaeologists discovered the remains of hearths, weapons, tools and jewelry made from stone, antlers, ivory and bone. In 1861 about 10,000 bones belonging to cave bears were found in Hohlenstein.


The Lion-man

One of the discoveries made during excavations in Hohlenstein-Stadel was this hybrid creature, which is half human and half lion. It's the largest ivory figurine found in the caves, measuring 31 cm (about 12 inches). Here it is shown from various angles. The figurine was reassembled from more than 300 fragments and almost completely restored. The Lion-man is held in the Ulm Museum.


Vogelherd Cave

Vogelherd was a perfect location for prehistoric humans, as it provided a 180° view over the valley. The cave dwellers could spot danger or game animals from afar. Among the finds in this cave were more than ten small mammoth ivory animal figurines. The archaeological theme park around the cave provides information and has two of the finds on display, a lion and a mammoth.


Wild horse

The wild horse sculpture, which is just under five centimeters high, is considered Vogelherd Cave's masterpiece. Its elegantly curved neck and rounded contours reflect skilled craftsmanship. Together with other finds from the caves, it's on display in Tübingen University's Museum of Ancient Cultures in Hohentübingen Castle.



There are several accessible caves in the Bockstein complex. Neanderthal tools from over 60,000 years ago have been found here. In July 2017, the UNESCO Commission declared that Baden-Württemberg's "caves with the oldest Ice Age art" will be the state's sixth World Heritage Site.

ipj/cmk (AFP, dpa)

Related content

Global Ideas | 10.08.2017

Palm oil everywhere

Environment | 07.08.2018

The trouble with palm oil