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Indonesian Cave Picture Said to be 40,000 Years Old

This composite image from the book "Borneo, Memory of the Caves" shows the world's oldest figurative artwork dated to a minimum of 40,000 years, in a limestone cave in the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. (Luc-Henri Fage/ via AP)
Indonesian Cave Picture Said To Be 40,000 Years Old
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Scientists have identified what they say is the oldest known drawing of an animal.

The scientists say the red image of a bull was found on the wall of a cave on the island of Borneo. They believe the picture is at least 40,000 years old.

Until a few years ago, experts believed that Europe was where human ancestors first made drawings of animals and other things. The earliest drawings of animals have been dated to between 33,500 and 37,000 years ago. They were found inside a cave in Chauvet, France.

A report on the Borneo cave drawing was published in the journal Nature.

The picture of the red bull and other discoveries in Southeast Asia suggest that figurative drawing appeared in both continents about the same time.

The limestone caves on Borneo have been known to contain prehistoric drawings since the 1990s.

Maxime Aubert is an archaeologist and geochemist with Griffith University in Australia. He and his team had to cut a path through thick jungle on the Indonesian side of Borneo to reach the cave. They walked and sometimes had to crawl on their hands and knees through a series of caves. They reported finding hundreds of ancient designs on the walls of the caves.

To find the age of the images, they needed to collect mineral deposits from the drawings. They used scientific instruments to measure decay, or break-down, of the element uranium.

Aubert and the researchers reported in 2014 on cave art from the neighboring Indonesian island of Sulawesi. They dated the designs by blowing red particles to capture the image of a hand pressed against rock. Scientific tests dated the image to almost 40,000 years ago.

Now, with the Borneo cave art, the scientists are able to create an estimated time line of how art developed in the area. In addition to the red bull, which is about 1.5 meters wide, they dated red- and purple-colored designs of hands and paintings of human images.

Scientists say Borneo was still connected to mainland Southeast Asia when the first drawings were made about 40,000 years ago. That was also about the time that modern humans arrived in Europe.

The researchers say they are planning to dig further to learn more about the people who made these drawings. A few dig sites have already been identified. They are said to contain human bones, prehistoric jewelry and remains of small animals.

As for the red bull, Aubert said, “We think it wasn’t just food for them — it meant something special.”

I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.

The Associated Press reported this story. Hai Do adapted this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

drawing - n. a picture, image, etc.. that is made by making lines on a surface

cave - n. a large hole that was formed by natural process in the side of a hill or underground

figurative - adj. showing people and things in a way that resembles how they look