Photograph by Stephen Alvarez, National Geographic Creative

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Archaeologists Alistair Pike and Dirk Hoffmann collect samples to determine the precise ages of horse paintings in a cave in northern Spain; the paintings are at least 13,000 years old.

Photograph by Stephen Alvarez, National Geographic Creative

Q&A: Cave Art Older, More Widespread Than Thought, Archaeologist Says

Alistair Pike has determined the ages of some of humans' oldest art.

A human hand and a "pig-deer" drawn in an Indonesian cave at least 40,000 years ago put Asia in a virtual tie with Europe for the earliest known cave art. (See "Cave Paintings in Indonesia Redraw Picture of Earliest Art.")

Archaeologist Alistair Pike of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, a National Geographic grantee, led a team that helped pioneer the radioactive dating of such finds. In 2012 he reported the oldest cave painting known so far, a red disk painted at least 40,800 years ago in Spain's El Castillo cave.

The team reporting the Indonesian cave art used Pike's method, which dates trace elements in waterborne minerals underlying and overtopping cave art. The dates proved startlingly ancient for cave paintings discovered outside of Europe.

National Geographic spoke to Pike about the Indonesian paintings and their meaning for finding the first artists.

How surprising is it to find such old cave paintings outside Europe?

Absolutely this changes our views and is going to make us ask a lot of questions about the causes rather than the origins of cave art. The hand stencils are almost identical to ones seen in Europe and elsewhere around the world, which is really interesting.

We've been shown here that our views have been too "Eurocentric" about the origins of cave painting. It's not surprising that people for years thought that France and Spain was the home for this art. That's where it was found in caves. But now we have new evidence.

Before this find, what was the history of cave painting thought to be?

Well, one argument that was made largely because we had all these European cave paintings was that when modern humans migrated to Europe, they competed with Neanderthals for caves, which led to a cultural change.

Other forms of symbolism existed, but people just didn't need to paint caves outside of Europe.

What's clear now is that the phenomenon happened elsewhere.

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A team led by Pike and Hoffmann searched dozens of caves in northern Spain for prehistoric art.

Who were these people painting in caves in Indonesia?

We think that modern people migrated out of Africa, perhaps around 60,000 years ago. Some of them traveled across southern Arabia, on a coastal route that took them into Southeast Asia, and eventually to Indonesia and Australia.

Others migrated into Europe later on. It's hard to say what connections they had, if any. There were not a lot of them, and they all had 20,000 years to leave East Africa and move into different parts of Eurasia.

They were hunter-gatherers; they had stone tools. We think these coastal routes were much more open then, so migrations would have been much easier.

Why would they make cave art?

Once modern people left Africa, they might have faced a different environment and social situation, different puzzles. They may have had to live in larger groups to survive, which leads to a need for stronger socialization. One way to display rituals and symbols is with cave art. But that is just one suggestion.

Does this argue for a common Stone Age culture stretching from Europe to Indonesia?

Not necessarily. Certainly making hand stencils seems a universal human practice. Children love to make handprints, even today. We see them in cave art in different times and places everywhere, even [more recently] in Argentina, and we know the painting pigments were around much earlier.

It could just be that the urge to make cave art is universal. And if you have the pigments, this is what you draw. But certainly you could argue that there are similarities between the art in Sulawesi and what is seen in Europe that go deeper, which is why we need to find more cave paintings.

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Minerals overlaying paintings are scraped by Dirk Hoffmann to test their age.

Where else might cave art turn up?

We need to look in more in-between places for cave art. A lot of the evidence may have disappeared underwater, as sea levels have risen since the migration out of Africa on the southern route. But we are finding things when we look inland.

I think this will stimulate a lot of searches in caves in a lot of places.

This interview has been edited for brevity and concision.

For more on ancient cave art, read National Geographic's January story "First Artists."

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