Figurative cave paintings from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi date to at least 35,000 years ago (ka) and hand-stencil art from the same region has a minimum date of 40 ka1. Here we show that similar rock art was created during essentially the same time period on the adjacent island of Borneo. Uranium-series analysis of calcium carbonate deposits that overlie a large reddish-orange figurative painting of an animal at Lubang Jeriji Saléh—a limestone cave in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo—yielded a minimum date of 40 ka, which to our knowledge is currently the oldest date for figurative artwork from anywhere in the world. In addition, two reddish-orange-coloured hand stencils from the same site each yielded a minimum uranium-series date of 37.2 ka, and a third hand stencil of the same hue has a maximum date of 51.8 ka. We also obtained uranium-series determinations for cave art motifs from Lubang Jeriji Saléh and three other East Kalimantan karst caves, which enable us to constrain the chronology of a distinct younger phase of Pleistocene rock art production in this region. Dark-purple hand stencils, some of which are decorated with intricate motifs, date to about 21–20 ka and a rare Pleistocene depiction of a human figure—also coloured dark purple—has a minimum date of 13.6 ka. Our findings show that cave painting appeared in eastern Borneo between 52 and 40 ka and that a new style of parietal art arose during the Last Glacial Maximum. It is now evident that a major Palaeolithic cave art province existed in the eastern extremity of continental Eurasia and in adjacent Wallacea from at least 40 ka until the Last Glacial Maximum, which has implications for understanding how early rock art traditions emerged, developed and spread in Pleistocene Southeast Asia and further afield.
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The fieldwork was authorized by I. M. Geria, the director of the National Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta (Arkenas) and B. Sancoyo and I. M. Kusumajaya, the director and former director of the Balai Pelestarian Cagar Budaya Kalimantan Timur. We further acknowledge the Indonesian State Ministry of Research and Technology for facilitating the research. We thank Griffith University for additional project support. Field assistants included Tewét, Bombé, Amril, Joang, Satriadi, M. Hendra, Stepanus, Satriadi, Sugianor, Heldi, Aidil, Joel, Ghojen, Budiansyah and Firman. Technical laboratory assistance involved A. Nguyen and Y. Feng. We thank S. O’Connor for critical feedback on the manuscript. This research was supported by grants from the Australian Research Council to M.A. (DE140100254 & FT170100025). Part of this work was carried out on the powder diffraction and X-ray fluorescence beamlines at the Australian synchrotron, which is part of ANSTO.
Nature thanks M. Bar-Matthews and R. Dennell for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Extended data figures and tables
a, The earliest phase of rock art production in the Sangkulirang–Mangkalihat Peninsula is associated with large, in-filled, reddish-orange-coloured paintings of animals and hand stencils. b, A second rock art phase is dominated by mulberry-coloured hand stencils—often clustered into distinct compositions and sometimes overlying hand stencils from the previous phase. c, Hand stencils from the second phase are often partly in-filled with painted designs and linked together by tree-like motifs, which possibly symbolize kinship connections. Sometimes older reddish-orange hand stencils appear to have been ‘retouched’ with mulberry-coloured paint and incorporated into these tree-like motifs. d, The later rock art phase in the Sangkulirang–Mangkalihat Peninsula is typified by anthropomorphs, boats and geometric designs that are usually executed using black pigments. This style is consistent with early Austronesian iconography, and is possibly related to the arrival of Austronesians in the region at about 4 ka, or more recently.
The Datu Saman figures of the Sangkulirang–Mangkalihat Peninsula are often depicted in narrative scenes involving small groups with headdresses and other objects.
a, P3 cross-section (top) and surface (bottom) showing red–blue–green overlay of XFM element maps for iron, calcium and strontium, respectively. Scans were collected at 2-μm pixel resolution with a dwell time of 1.33 ms per pixel, for a total 2.8 h. b, Red–blue–green overlay of XFM element maps for iron, calcium and sulfur for samples P2 (top left), P1 (bottom left), P4a (top right) and P4b (bottom right). Scans were collected at 2-μm pixel resolution with a dwell time of between 1.33 and 2 ms per pixel, for a total 3.5 h. c, Scanning electron micrograph of the surface of P1 illustrating typical gypsum crystals overlying larger calcium carbonate grains. Scanning electron microscope data were collected on the P1 sample over five separate scanning electron microscopy sessions between March 2017 and May 2018 with consistent, repeatable results.
Sample LJS2 is shown. a, b, Photograph (a) and tracing (b) showing the locations of the dated speleothem (n = 1) and associated reddish-orange-coloured hand stencil. The date of 51.8 ka provides the maximum date for the earliest rock art phase in the Sangkulirang–Mangkalihat Peninsula. c, Profiles of the speleothem showing the micro-excavated subsamples and associated U-series dates. Tracing, L. Huntley.
Samples LJS3 and LJS4 are shown. a, The reddish-orange-coloured hand stencil from Liang Téwét has a maximum date of 103.3 ka. b, The animal painting from Liang Karim (possibly a tapir) has a maximum date of 82.6 ka. c–e, Dated rock art from Lubang Jeriji Saléh (samples LJS3 and LJS4). Photograph (c) and tracing (d) showing the locations of the dated speleothem (n = 2) and associated mulberry-coloured hand stencil. The maximum date of 20.9 ka provides the maximum date for the second rock art phase in the Sangkulirang–Mangkalihat Peninsula. e, Profiles of the speleothem showing the micro-excavated subsamples and associated U-series dates. Tracing, L. Huntley.
Samples LBT1 and LBT2 are shown. a–d, LBT1. a, b, Photograph (a) and tracing (b) of sample LBT1 showing the locations of the dated speleothem and associated decorated mulberry-coloured hand stencil. This panel has been the subject of vandalism; it was defaced with bright-red spray paint in 2014 or 2015. c, Profiles of the speleothem showing the micro-excavated subsamples and associated U-series dates. d, The sample broke at the speleothem–paint boundary and the pigment is shown from the rear of the sample. e–h, LBT2. e, f, Photograph (e) and tracing (f) of sample LBT2 showing the locations of the dated speleothem and associated decorated mulberry-coloured hand stencil. This panel has been the subject of vandalism; it was defaced with bright-red spray paint in 2014 or 2015. g, Profiles of the speleothem showing the micro-excavated subsamples and associated U-series dates. h, The sample broke at the speleothem–paint boundary and the pigment is shown from the rear of the sample. Tracing, L. Huntley.
Sample LH2 is shown. a, b, Photograph (a) and tracing (b) showing the locations of the dated speleothem and associated mulberry-coloured hand stencil. c, Profiles of the speleothem showing the micro-excavated subsamples and associated U-series dates. Tracing, L. Huntley.
Sample LH1 is shown. a, b, Photograph (a) and tracing (b) showing the locations of the dated speleothem and associated undetermined mulberry-coloured figure. c, Profiles of the speleothem showing the micro-excavated subsamples and associated U-series dates. d, The sample broke above the pigment layer. Tracing, L. Huntley.
a, b, Large animal paintings from Sangkulirang–Mangkalihat Peninsula (a) and south Sulawesi (b).
a–d, Photographs of rock art from the Kimberley of Western Australia (a, b) and the Kakadu–Arnhem Land region of Australia’s Northern Territory (c, d). Photographs, M. Donaldson Wildrocks Publication (a, b) and P.S.C.T. (c, d).
This file contains information on the Site Description and legends for Supplementary Tables 1 and 2.
This file contains Supplementary Table 1 (full legend provided in Supplementary Information file).
This file contains Supplementary Table 2 (full legend provided in Supplementary Information file).