The first generally recognised piece of artwork is abstract in the extreme: a worked piece of hematite with a complex linear pattern etched into it. It comes from Blombos Cave in South Africa, together with similarly engraved bone, shell ornaments and advances in stone tool kits.
Dated at 100 ka, the Blombos culture is regarded by many palaeoanthropologists as the start of the ‘First Human Revolution’. Yet most believe that such a massive cultural shift only properly manifested itself around 40 ka in Europe shortly after its colonisation by anatomically modern humans. It was then that lifelike pictures of animals began to appear on the walls of caves, such as those discovered in Chauvet Cave in France and radiocarbon dated to between 35.5 to 38.8 ka.
Such a Eurocentric view is based on the lack of evidence for precedent art of this kind from elsewhere. The adage that 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence' - attributed to Carl Sagan - recently popped up with sophisticated dating of cave art in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The cave-riddled limestones of southern Sulawesi have long been known for artwork on the roofs of caves and in some of their darker recesses, including sketches of local animals, humans and a great many stencils made by blowing a spray of pigment over a hand placed on a rock face. The pictures were thought to be relatively recent.
A joint Australian-Indonesian group of Archaeologists used a specialist technique to date them (Aubert, M. and 9 others 2014. Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature, v. 514, p. 223-227. See also Roebroeks, W. 2014. Art on the move. Nature (News & Views), v. 514, p. 170-171). Like many paintings in limestone caves, with time they become coated with calcite film deposited from water flowing over the rock surface, known as flowstone or speleothem. It is possible to date the film layers using the uranium-series method to derive a maximum age for the encased pigment from speleothem beneath it and a minimum age from the layer immediately overlaying it. One of the hand stencils proved to be the oldest found anywhere, with a minimum age of 39.9 ka, while sketches of animals ranged from 35.4 to 35.7 ka. To see more images and view an interactive video about the Sulawesi finds click here.
The discovery by Maxime Auberts and his colleagues has set the cat among the pigeons as regards the origin of visual art. The paintings’ roughly coincident age with the earliest in Europe raises three possibilities: the artistic muse struck simultaneously with people widely separated since their ancestors’ emergence from Africa; somehow the skills were quickly carried a third of the way around the world from one place to the other; the original migrants from Africa took artistic ability of this kind with them to Eurasia, perhaps as early as 125 ka ago.
Three points need to be considered: whether in Europe or eastern Indonesia, cave art is preserved either on the roofs or in the deep recesses of caves, where it is more likely to survive then in more exposed sites; preservation by speleothem enhances longevity and the oldest works are in limestone caves; many more archaeologists have researched caves in Europe than in the far larger areas of Asia and Africa. A view worth considering is that art may have begun outdoors, in a well-lit site on whatever ‘canvas’ presented itself. The artists’ choice of cave walls in Europe and Indonesia may have resulted from the need for shelter from rain and/or cold, whereas much of Africa and Australia poses little need for ‘interior design’. Besides, what if art began on the most easily available canvas of all – human skin! My guess is that the record will widen in space and deepen in time.