Stone age art provides a fascinating glimpse into the minds of our ancestors. However, how much we can infer from the art is limited by the fact almost all of it comes from Europe. Hardly a representative sample. However, a couple of years ago this changed with the discovery of the first cave art from outside of Europe. Yet it was curiously similar to European art.
Of course, not all stone age art is daubed on walls. Most of the European art is actually smaller mobiliary or “portable” pieces. These are things like statues, beads and engravings that could be carried from site to site. However, none of this art was found with that non-European cave art, despite its frequency inside Europe.
At least, none was found until now. Archaeologists have found some mobiliary art from the same time and place as that first non-European cave art. And much like that previously discovered cave art it shares some curious similarities to European art. So it’s fairly typical and boring, yet found so far away that it becomes fascinating.
Returning to the scene of the crime
Cave art outside of Europe isn’t particularly rare. In fact, Australian aborigines have made it for thousands of years. However, Palaeolithic cave art is essentially unknown. Or at least, that’s what we thought. It turns out we’d found non-European stone age cave art in the 1950s. We just didn’t realise how old it was.
The enigmatic art in question comes from several caves in Indonesia. Despite being fairly well studied, their age wasn’t identified until 2014. This revealed they were actually from the Palaeolithic, making them the first cases of non-European cave art from this period ever found. Despite this, they shared many similarities with their European counterparts, depicting similar images in similar circumstances with similar techniques.
This obviously renewed interest in these Indonesian caves. Notably, Leang Bulu Bettue was identified as the oldest cave of the set; dating to ~39,000 years ago. This places it roughly contemporary with the famous French Chauvet Cave.
So archaeologists returned to Leang Bulu Bettue and dug down into the stone age sediments. There, they found three distinct phases of Palaeolithic occupation covering almost 10,000 years of prehistory. This ranged from shortly after the previously found cave art (~29,000 years ago) all the way to 22,000 years ago. Basically yesterday by comparison.
Despite covering such a long period of time, each of these occupations contained some mobiliary art, the first such discoveries in the region.
Stone age art at Leang Bulu Bettue
All in all the archaeologists found 7 symbolic artefacts spread across those three occupations. These include three animal parts turned into beads and four stone artefacts with patterns scratched into them. On top of this, there were several examples of used pigments found, along with tools and bones stained with said pigment.
Despite the long period of time covered by these three distinct occupations, each of them had a representative of all these types of art. However, there were still some notable differences between the layers. For example, those living in the oldest occupation made their beads from the hilariously named pig-deer. Meanwhile, those living later used bear toes for their beads.
Unfortunately, the significance of this is difficult to determine from a sample size of 7. Does the shift to bear toes represent a cultural change? An event of religious significance? One group driving out another? Or is it just an anomaly caused by a lack of data.
The engraved rocks are a bit more consistent, consisting of flakes broken off larger rocks that are then engraved with lines, either parallel or criss-cross, or both. Although again, with only a handful of examples its hard to draw strong conclusions from it.
However, whilst we can’t say much about this art, we can say one fascinating thing: it’s remarkably similar to art from elsewhere in the world. Art found thousands of kilometres and tens of thousands of years apart.
Beads and engraved rocks are also fairly common examples of stone age art made in Europe around this same time period. The main difference being that in Europe, this phenomenon was dialled to 11. For example, an Italian burial nicknamed “the Prince” was produced at around the same time. This individual was decorated with thousands of beads made from shells, teeth, and bone.
So we’re dealing with a difference in quantity rather than quality. Or are we? One thing to remember is that most of archaeology is done by Europeans. And we can often have a bit of an egocentric research focus. So accordingly, most research has been carried out in Europe. So whilst the Prince was found in 1940, those Indonesian beads were only discovered in 2015. Perhaps we just haven’t had the chance to find as much stuff.
This case of stone age art is starting to look more boringly typical. And in the process, I think it’s becoming ever more fascinating. Particularly when you consider African stone age art too. In fact, the earliest case of symbolic behaviour by modern humans comes from Blombos Cave in South Africa. The people there incised patterns on a block of ochre, not dissimilar to this new Indonesian find.
All of this makes the new art fairly typical, which is fascinating when you consider how far away from anything else it is geographically. Now, I’m not going to use this to argue there’s some sort of monoculture stretching from Blombos Cave to Indonesia. Rather, it seems to be the case that when you give the same species the same materials then similar stuff gets produced.
Which I think is far more interesting.
Aubert, M., Brumm, A., Ramli, M., Sutikna, T., Saptomo, E.W., Hakim, B., Morwood, M.V., van den Bergh, G.D., Kinsley, L. and Dosseto, A., 2014. Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature, 514(7521), pp.223-227.
Brumm, A., Langley, M.C., Moore, M.W., Hakim, B., Ramli, M., Sumantri, I., Burhan, B., Saiful, A.M., Siagian, L., Sardi, R. and Jusdi, A., 2017. Early human symbolic behavior in the Late Pleistocene of Wallacea. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(16), pp.4105-4110.