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A Prehistoric Cave Art Find That 'Was Not Expected’

"They may even have been our superiors in this respect."

This undated handout photo provided by Nature Magazine shows stencils of hands in a cave in Indonesia. Ancient cave drawings in Indonesia are as old as famous prehistoric art in Europe, according to a new study that shows our ancestors were drawing all over the world 40,000 years ago. And it hints at an even earlier dawn of creativity in modern humans, going back to Africa, than scientists had thought. (AP/Kinez Riza, Nature Magazine)

WASHINGTON (TheBlaze/AP) — A new discovery of prehistoric art suggests that Europe wasn't the only birthplace for early human creativity 40,000 years ago.

New research suggests that cave art found in Indonesia dates back just as far as the drawings that have been found in Europe. The find hints at an even earlier dawn of creativity in modern humans, going back to Africa, than scientists had thought.

This undated handout photo provided by Nature Magazine shows stencils of hands in a cave in Indonesia. Ancient cave drawings in Indonesia are as old as famous prehistoric art in Europe, according to a new study that shows our ancestors were drawing all over the world 40,000 years ago. And it hints at an even earlier dawn of creativity in modern humans, going back to Africa, than scientists had thought. (AP/Kinez Riza, Nature Magazine) This undated handout photo provided by Nature Magazine shows stencils of hands in a cave in Indonesia. Ancient cave drawings in Indonesia are as old as famous prehistoric art in Europe, according to a new study that shows our ancestors were drawing all over the world 40,000 years ago. And it hints at an even earlier dawn of creativity in modern humans, going back to Africa, than scientists had thought. (AP/Kinez Riza, Nature Magazine)

Archaeologists calculated that a dozen stencils of hands in mulberry red and two detailed drawings of an animal described as a "pig-deer" are between 35,000 to 40,000 years old, based on levels of decay of the element uranium. That puts the art found in Sulawesi, southeast of Borneo, in the same rough time period as drawings found in Spain and a famous cave in France.

"It is often assumed that Europe was the center of the earliest explosion in human creativity, especially cave art, about 40,000 years ago, but our rock art dates from Sulawesi show that at around the same time on the other side of the world people were making pictures of animals as remarkable as those in the Ice Age caves of France and Spain," Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in Australia, said in a statement.

These are more than 100 Indonesian cave drawings that have been known since 1950. In 2011, scientists noticed some strange outcroppings — called "cave popcorn" — on the drawings. Those mineral deposits would make it possible to use the new technology of uranium decay dating to figure out how old the art is. So they tested the cave popcorn that had grown over the stencils that would give a minimum age. It was near 40,000 years.

"Whoa, it was not expected," Aubert,lead author of the study published this week in the journal Nature, said.

Watch this video about the discovery:

Looking at the paintings, the details on the animal drawings are "really, really well-made," Aubert said in a phone interview from Jakarta, Indonesia. "Then when you look at it in context that it's really 40,000 years old, it's amazing."

Paleoanthropologist John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York, who wasn't part of the study, called this an important discovery that changes what science thought about early humans and art.

Before this discovery, experts had a Europe-centric view of how, when and where humans started art, Aubert said. Knowing when art started is important because "it kind of defines us as a species," he said.

Because the European and Asian art are essentially the same age, it either means art developed separately and simultaneously in different parts of the world or "more likely that when humans left Africa 65,000 years ago they were already evolved with the capacity to make paintings," Aubert said. Ancient art hasn't been found much in Africa because the geology doesn't preserve it.

Shea and others lean toward the earlier art theory.

"What this tells us is that when humans began moving out of Africa they were not all that different from us in terms of their abilities to use art and symbol," Shea said in an email. "Inasmuch as many of us would have difficulty replicating such paintings, they may even have been our superiors in this respect."

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