Learning to Draw: The World’s Oldest Figurative Painting

The world’s oldest figurative painting was found in a cave here, in East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, Indonesia

Any of us can draw pictures of people or animals (whether we draw well or badly is another matter). But drawing was not a piece of cake for our distant human ancestors, especially figurative drawings since it requires a brain with a certain level of sophistication. Evidence of prehistorical figurative drawings therefore offer important clues to the cognitive evolution of the human race.

So, when did our ancestors first showed this ability? Until recently, the answer would have Europe, in particular, the Chauvet cave in France where cave paintings dating to 30,000 BCE were found. A 2018 discovery in Asia, led by Maxime Aubert of Griffiths University in Queensland, Australia, has changed all that. According to Aubert and his team, the world’s oldest figurative painting took place in Borneo, the largest island in Indonesia and one of the largest islands in the world. The evidence lies in the following drawing of an unidentified animal (bison, perhaps) which was found in a cave in East Kalimantan in Borneo’s jungle interior. They have put the age of this image to between 40,000 and 52,000 years ago, making it at least 10,000 years older than the Chauvet paintings.

The world’s oldest figurative cave painting, East Kalimantan, Borneo.
Close-up of the animal image in the Borneo cave painting

It is useful to place this discovery in the context of pre-figurative paintings. The oldest drawing in the world is a 73,000 year-old crosshatch found in a South African cave. In Europe, the oldest art is also an abstract symbol of red lines and a hand stencil, made by Neanderthals around 65,000 years ago. But these abstract designs are simpler than figurative art, which makes the Borneo discovery monumentally significant. The finding adds to the mounting evidence that Southeast Asia is a key site for the development of art, not only Europe as was once thought.

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