Some of the earliest cave paintings produced by humans have been identified in a rural area on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi.
Until now, paintings this old had been confirmed in caves only in Western Europe.
Researchers tell the journal Nature that the Indonesian discovery transforms ideas about how humans first developed the ability to produce art.
Australian and Indonesian scientists have dated layers of stalactite-like growths that have formed over colored outlines of human hands.
Early artists made them by carefully blowing paint around hands that were pressed tightly against the cave walls and ceilings. The oldest is at least 40,000 years old.
There are also human figures, and pictures of wild hoofed animals that are found only on the island. Dr. Maxime Aubert, of Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, who dated the paintings found in Maros in Southern Sulawesi, explained that one of them was probably the earliest of its type.
“The minimum age for is 39,900 years old, which makes it the oldest hand stencil in the world,” said Dr. Maxime Aubert.
There are also paintings in the caves that are around 27,000 years old, which means that the inhabitants were painting for at least 13,000 years.
In addition, there are paintings in a cave in the regency of Bone, 100 km north of Maros. These cannot be dated because the stalactite-like growths used to determine the age of the art do not occur. However, the researchers believe that they are probably the same age as the paintings in Maros because they are stylistically identical.
The discovery of the Indonesian cave art is important because it shows the beginnings of human intelligence as we understand it today.