Australian archaeologists rewrite our understanding of human artistic origins– named in top 10 scientific achievements for 2014

Liz Vaughan, Archaeology Honours student at the University of Western Australia


‘Pig-deer’ rock image from Sulawesi. Photo courtesy the Daily Journalist. 

In a paper published in the October 9th issue of Nature Drs Maxime Aubert and Adam Brumm revealed the discovery of 40,000 year old rock art on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Europe has often been considered a cradle of human artistic expression and symbolic behaviour, but the findings from Sulawesi immediately challenged these traditional views. Since 1996 Science magazine has selected what it considers the most outstanding scientific discoveries of that year. The piece by Aubert and Brumm was ranked as one of the 10 most important scientific discoveries made in 2014. Science notes that researchers “… suggest that humans in Indonesia independently invented symbolic art as early as Europe’s cave painters did—or that modern humans were already sophisticated artists when they spread out of Africa starting about 60,000 years ago”.

The Sulawesi cave art includes mouth-blown hand stencils and figurative art such as the rare ‘pig-deer’ in mulberry red hues. Using a technique called Uranium Series dating, Dr Aubert measured the radioactive decay of uranium in stalactite-like growths that formed on top of the paintings. Using this technique the hand-stencil was found to be at least 39,000 years old whilst the animal paintings were found to be at least 35,400 years old.

These findings could change our understanding of key developmental stages in human history, such as when and where symbolic behaviour arose in our species. Symbolic and artistic behaviour flourished in Europe between 35,000 to 39,000 years ago, with the appearance of the earliest ‘Venus’ figurine, as well as images of rhinoceroses, horses and lions at the famous Chauvet Cave in France and bulls at Altamira in Spain. However, there is an increasing pool of evidence from Australia that shows the possibilities of equally ancient artistic traditions. This is hinted by a 40,000 year old painted rock slab from Carpenters Gap in the Kimberley, ochre with use-wear striations from Nauwalibila 1 and Madjebebe rock shelter in the Northern Territory dated to 53,000 years BP by thermoluminescence  (Roberts et al. 1994), the use of ochre in the ‘Mungo Man’ burial at Willandra Lakes 40,000 years ago, and the dating of red pigment in mineralized rock in surface accretions at the Quinkan rock shelter to 27,000 years ago (Watchman 1993).

It has been argued recently that Aboriginal people arrived on the continent by 50,000 years ago (Veth and O’Connor 2013) with a complete cultural package, including advanced symbolic behaviour and abstract thought (Balme et al 2009; Veth et al 2011). It was precisely these modern behaviours that allowed people to plan and carry out the significant ocean voyages to Australia (then a combined Australian/ Papua New Guinean land-mass known as Sahul) and rapidly colonise the world’s most arid continent.

“The evidence of figurative artistic capabilities 40,000 years ago from Sulawesi raises the possibility that equally early rock art may be found within the Australian context”, Dr Max Aubert tells AAA, “however rock art in Australia is often in sandstone country, which makes dating using the uranium series technique difficult”.

Read more of this story here and here.


Balme, J., I. Davidson, J. McDonald, N. Stern and P. Veth 2009 Symbolic behaviour and the peopling of the southern arc route to Australia. Quaternary International 202:59-68.

Roberts, R., Jones, R., Spooner, N., Head, M., Murray, A. and M. Smith 1994 The human colonisation of Australia: Optical dates of 53,000 and 60, 000 years bracket human arrival at Deaf Adder Gorge, Northern Territory.  Quaternary Geochronology 13: 575-583.

Veth, P. and S. O’Connor 2013 The last 50,000 years: an archaeological view. In A. Bashford and S. Macintyre (eds) The Cambridge History of Australia, pp. 17-42. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Veth, P., Stern, N, McDonald, J, Balme, J. and I. Davidson 2011  The role of information exchange in the colonisation of Sahul. In Whallon, R., Lovis, W. A. and R. K. Hitchcock (eds) The Role of Information in Hunter-Gatherer Band Adaptations, pp. 203-220. Los Angeles: The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press of UCLA.

Watchman, A, 1993 Evidence of a 25,000 year old pictograph from northern Australia. Geoarchaeology 8 (6): 58-65.