We have thousands of examples of Ice Age artwork in Europe: curved figurines of Venus, pearls carved from bones, and cave paintings of cats and saber-toothed mammoths dating back around 35,000 years. . These sites are also the best documented in the world, having been studied since the 19th century.
Evidence of the oldest art on other continents is much rarer, but it is increasingly recorded across the world. In the latest study that attempts to offer a more complete picture of human creativity, researchers report that they have discovered jewelry and pigments inside an Ice Age cave in Indonesia that are between 22 000 and 30,000 years ago. They published their findings today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Archaeologist Adam Brumm and his colleagues have searched for traces of the original inhabitants of Sulawesi. The island is shaped like a withered starfish and is the largest in Wallacea, the region between the continental shelves of Asia and Australia.
Researchers made headlines in 2014 when they discovered [PDF] this work of rock art among the imposing karst formations of the southwestern Sulawesi peninsula may be one of the oldest in the world. Using a precise dating method, they documented hand-stencils that were nearly 40,000 years old. They also found a figurative painting of a pig (or babirusa) over 35,000 years old, rivaling the age of animal paintings inside the famous Chauvet cave in France.
As detailed in this study, archaeologists excavated the ground of another cave known as Leang Bulu Bettue.
“We started digging in this limestone cave because it was the only site I had seen in the area that seemed to have escaped the ravages of erosion and disturbance caused by local farmers digging the earth out of the cave. rich in guano for use as a fertilizer, “Brumm, who is an associate professor at Griffith University in Australia, tells mental_floss. The cave had also preserved rock art on its walls and ceilings – red and purple stencils identical to some of the nearby cave paintings described in 2014.
So, the researchers suspected that they would find archaeological deposits intact, and they indeed did.
They unearthed stone artifacts carved with geometric patterns like X’s and parallel lines, as well as pieces of ocher, a natural pigment used in cave painting. They dug up a perforated finger bone from a local bear couscous, a sort of marsupial, which may have been used for a necklace, and they found unfinished disc-shaped beads made from a tooth. of babirusa. The artefacts are between 22,000 and 30,000 years old.
Prehistoric ornaments excavated from the Leang Bulu Bettue cave site, as well as how archaeologists believe they might have been worn. Image credits: prepared by M. Langley and A. Brumm; bear couscous bone image courtesy of Griffith University / Luke Marsden; photographs of couscous and bear babirusa: Shutterstock
Brumm says that of the 2,000 islands of Wallacea, only seven have so far yielded archaeological deposits from the Pleistocene, the time when the last Ice Age occurred. Therefore, the total number of artifacts in the region is “pitifully small,” he says, numbering perhaps only a dozen or so.
“This profound imbalance in research intensity makes it extremely difficult to make meaningful comparisons between the Ice Age cultures of Wallacea and Europe,” Brumm explains.
The fact that the newly discovered artifacts were made from animal bones only found in Sulawesi suggests that early humans were “drawn to the symbolic potential of the alien species they encountered” when they colonized this area, Brumm says.
“It speaks to a flexibility in early human culture in this little understood part of the ‘ice age’ world – an ability to adapt existing art forms and symbolic culture to entirely new environments and ecosystems.” , adds Brumm. And he thinks it’s exactly that kind of flexibility that would have allowed the people of this region to colonize an isolated continent like Australia some 50,000 years ago.
Archaeologist Iain Davidson, professor emeritus at the University of New England in Australia, who was not involved in the study, also believes the same skills that allowed people to build personal watercraft and navigate at through Wallacea “should have allowed them to represent their world in a symbolic way. . “
Davidson calls the find very important “primarily because it adds to the emerging image of an early rock art world in the region where it was thought to be none; now it is clear that there are, “Davidson told mental_floss. “It has always been probably, but maybe just a matter of finding and using the right techniques, which this team did very well.