New Research Challenges Theories on Origins of Ancient Rock Art


We’re all familiar with the beautiful paintings at Lascaux and Alta Mira and for decades, Europe has been seen as home to the earliest examples of figurative art. In October, the discovery that the oldest known surviving rock art  existed in Sulawesi, Indonesia, changed that view forever. Now, new research shows this was no anomaly; from Southwest China to northern Australia, ancient rock art is everywhere.

The rock art of Southeast Asia has been less thoroughly studied than that of Europe or Australia, and it has generally been considered to be more recent in origin. But new dating evidence from Mainland and Island Southeast Asia shows they are as early as those in Europe.


Bull on a natural projection of stone, from the Xianrendong rock art site in Yunnan, China

In fact, the earliest painted motifs in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia all seem to be pretty similar; hand motifs and naturalistic animals. There is just one key difference. Unlike in Europe, the rock art discovered so far in Southeast Asia has been in rockshelters which, the researchers suggest, indicates they were probably weren’t initially inspired by experiences in ‘deep caves’, as some had previously thought.

Hand stencils were recently shown to have been made up to 40,000 years ago in Sulawesi, Indonesia. surviving rock art of Southeast Asia shows that the region’s first people, hunter-gatherers who arrived over 50,000 years ago. The new discoveries show that they brought with them an already rich art practice.

The research, published this week in the archaeological journal Antiquity, shows that 35,000 – 40,000 year old dates for some rock art in Sulawesi, Indonesia announced in October is not an anomaly. Instead, the practice was widespread across the region, from southwest China to Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia and are also found at the earliest surviving rock art sites of northern Australia.

The oldest art they found consists primarily of naturalistic images of wild animals and, in some locations, hand stencils. Griffith University Chair in Rock Art Professor Paul Taçon led the research, which involved field work with collaborative international teams in rugged locations of several countries. Taçon said that,

As with the early art of Europe, the oldest Southeast Asian images often incorporated or were placed in relation to natural features of rock surfaces.

One such example includes a bull from the Xianrendong rock art site in Yunnan, China. Here, a natural projection of stone that resembles a profile animal was painted with red ochre to highlight the head, front legs and side of the body, while the head has a natural hole for an eye.

“This shows a purposeful engagement with the new places early peoples arrived in for both symbolic and practical reasons. Essentially, they humanised landscapes wherever they went, transforming them from wild places to cultural landscapes. This was the beginning of a process that continues to this day.”


A naturalistic painting of a deer at a rock art site near Siem Reap, Cambodia is the oldest painting of the region. (photo: Paul Taçon).

The oldest paintings were identified by analysing how various styles of painting overlapped and superimposed eachother, as well as by numerical dating.

But, says Tacon, unlike in Europe, the oldest surviving rock art of Southeast Asia is more often found in rock shelters than in deep caves, suggesting experiences in deep caves cannot have been their inspiration, as has long been argued for Europe.

“This significantly shifts debates about the origins of art-making and supports ideas that this fundamental human behaviour began with our most ancient ancestors in Africa, rather than Europe”.

The research supports the idea that modern humans brought the practice of making semi-permanent images in rocky landscapes to Europe and Asia from Africa, Taçon said.

These results have implications not only for our understanding of Southeast Asian and European rock art, but also Australian. In Kakadu-Arnhem Land and other parts of northern Australia the oldest surviving rock art also consists of naturalistic animals and stencils.

The question now is whether the practice of making these sorts of designs may have been brought to Australia at the time of initial colonisation, whether they were independently invented, or resulted from as yet unknown forms of culture contact. All three possibilities are equally intriguing. New investigations in both northern Australia and Southeast Asia are currently being planned.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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