What were our ancestors doing 40,000 years ago? Besides the necessaries of day-to-day living, they were making art, and some of it has survived to the present day. Every time I see one of these articles about cave art, I wonder about the rest of it, all lost: clothing, jewelry, paintings on more temporary media like hides and bark, dance and music. Those are all gone. All we have left, as fragile as they are, are a few scattered efforts preserved only by virtue of being put on rocks in deep and hidden places.
Even that is endangered. The European cave paintings are threatened by their revelation — exposure to outside air and the humidity from breathing viewers leads to a kind of creeping rot. These new paintings from Sulawesi, Indonesia are also in trouble. Many of them are marred by speleothems, secondary mineral deposits that form over the older layers, so they’re mottled and pitted and sometimes covered with sheets of obscuring material.
Those secondary deposits do provide one advantage, though: they can be dated, layer, by layer, so you can determine fairly precisely how old they were. The figure below shows at the bottom a cross section through these deposits, and you can see the base rock of the cave, the pigment layer where the painting was done, and overlying layers of speleothem. Some of these paintings are 40,000 years old, while the most recent are about 17,000 years old — so not only are they ancient, but they span 23,000 years of human activity.
The earliest paintings are often of local game, like the babirusa above, and most commonly, of human hands — just place your hand on the wall, and spray pigment around it to leave your mark. That’s an old, old impulse, and I think of the temptation of a freshly poured sidewalk, and how so often you’ll find a handprint pressed there. “I was here,” it’s saying. “Here I reach for a little more permanence.”
Here’s more. Just look at them.
What are you planning to leave, that will thrill people 40,000 years from now?
Aubert M, Brumm A, Ramli M, Sutikna T, Saptomo EW, Hakim B, Morwood MJ, van den Bergh GD, Kinsley L, Dosseto A (2014) Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature. 2514(7521):223-7.