Tropical Cave Art Alters Origins of Creativity

Tropical Cave Art Alters Origins of Creativity
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The tropical karst landscape of Southern Sulawesi in Indonesia is dotted with sinkholes and caves, forming, in many places, a vast, underground world. You can thank soluble rocks like limestone, dolomite, and gypsum for that. The caves afforded our ancient ancestors cover from the torrential rains that define the island chain's climate. The walls inside also granted them easels to express their creativity.

Archaeologists have known about the wondrous rock art in the Maros–Pangkep caves of Southern Sulawesi for over half a century. What they didn't know was how old they were. A team primarily based out of the University of Wollongong in Australia has just found out, and the answer has altered the timeline and geography of human creativity.

Dr. Anthony Dosseto and his colleagues dated the art to roughly 40,000 years ago. Among the dozen drawings analyzed is a hand stencil that -- at a minimum age of 39,900 years old -- is now the oldest known in the world, and a drawing of half-deer, half-pig looking animal called a babirusa, which may be the earliest figurative depiction in the world.

Dating cave art is easier said than done. Often, due to weathering, the pigments in the paintings themselves don't contain enough carbon for typical dating methods. Contamination can also lead to inaccuracies. So instead, scientists may rely on clues in the immediate vicinity. For example, they might date nearby artifacts or remains and apply those ages to the artwork. Occasionally, scientists will bring out their magnifying glasses and attempt to sleuth out a painting's age by examining its depictions. A drawing of a mammoth, for example, would lend a rough estimation because we already know when mammoths existed.

To gauge the paintings' ages in this case, the researchers dated mineral deposits called speleotherms that had grown on top of the drawings. When formed, the crystal-looking objects contain small amounts of uranium which slowly decay to thorium. Since the scientists already knew that rate of decay, they were able to extrapolate and determine the rough age of the paintings.

For a long time, human creativity was thought to have been born in Europe in a sort of prehistoric Renaissance. Only from there, did it truly flourish. A great many cave paintings dating to more than 30,000 years ago have been discovered in France and Spain, including the amazingly preserved and transcendent artwork in Chauvet Cave and the oldest known artwork in the world, a simple red "disk," found in El Castillo Cave. (The latter may actually have been painted by Neanderthals!) The current finding may require anthropologists to rethink that Eurocentric narrative.

"I think this suggests that modern humans had this creativity, this artistic expression, with them when they spread out of Africa," Chris Stringer, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in the United Kingdom told Nature.

“Europeans can’t exclusively claim to be the first to develop an abstract mind anymore. They need to share this, at least, with the early inhabitants of Indonesia,” Dr. Dosseto said.

The discovery was published October 8th to the journal Nature.

(Images: Kinez Riza)

Source: Dosseto et. al. Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature 514, 223–227 (09 October 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13422

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