The world’s oldest figurative drawing depicts a wounded animal

Enlarge (credit: Aubert et al. 2018)

New radiometric dating identifies the oldest known figurative drawing—not a stenciled outline of a hand or an abstract design, but an actual attempt to depict a real object in an image. As far as we know, a cave wall in Indonesian Borneo was the site for the first time a person drew something, rather than just making abstract marks. The drawing is at least 40,000 years old, based on uranium-series dating of a thin layer of rock deposited on top of the drawing since its creation.

It’s a large animal of some sort, outlined and colored in with reddish-orange pigment, but after 40,000 years, parts of the image are missing. Griffith University archaeologist Maxime Aubert and his colleagues say it appears to be a large hoofed mammal with a spear shaft sticking out of its flank.

Other figurative drawings, as old as 35,000 years, have turned up on the nearby island of Sulawesi, alongside hand stencils dating back to 40,000 years ago. And in Europe, people started representing animals in art around the same time, such as on figurines carved in mammoth ivory from Germany. That means the tradition of representing the world around us in art is ancient around the world, from an island in southeast Asia to western Eurasia.

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