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TurnedNews.com Scientist of the Year: The Childhood of Art | TurnedNews.com Scientists of the Year

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The work of Mr. Aubert, a professor at Griffith University in Australia, has revealed the existence, in Indonesia, of the oldest known figurative paintings. In January 2021, he described in the journal Science AdvancesHave (New window)Have (in English), with his colleagues, the image of a wild boar, painted on the wall of a cave on the island of Sulawesi 45,500 years ago.

Image showing a wild boar on the wall of a cave.

Image of a wild boar, painted on the wall of a cave in the island of Sulawesi 45,500 years ago

Photo: Griffith University/Maxime Aubert

In Southeast Asia,500years old, was able to do very, very sophisticated paintings”,”text”:”modern man, at least 45,500 years ago, was able to do very, very sophisticated paintings”}}”>modern man, at least 45,500 years ago, was able to do very, very sophisticated paintingssays the researcher, whose work in recent years has been published in the journal Nature and ranked among the 10 discoveries of the year by the magazine Sciencenot once, but twice, in 2014 and 2020.

Maxime Aubert is from Lévis. Trained in archeology at Laval University, he then specialized in geochemistry at the National Institute for Scientific Research. More precisely in dating parietal art, using the uranium-thorium method.

The problem at that time was that there was only one prototype machine that could process very small samples and it was at the Australian National Universityrecalls Mr. Aubert. So, actually, I did my entire PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra, and before I finished my degree, they offered me a job there.

Uranium-thorium dating involves measuring the degradation of uranium atoms into thorium atoms in calcite samples collected from the walls of limestone caves that house the paintings. Much like the degradation at a known and constant rate of carbon-14 isotopes makes it possible to estimate the age of ancient organic matter, the more recent uranium-thorium method provides ages for minerals such as calcite, which accumulates on cave walls over time.

In the field, I have a kind of dental drill with which I cut a sample [sur une peinture, NDLR], and then, in the lab, I divide it into three or four subsamples. The sub-sample which is closest to the layer of paint is the oldest, and it becomes younger as it rises towards the surface; so this sample that is closest to the paint layer gives us the minimum date of the workexplains the archaeologist.

Maxime Aubert takes samples from the wall of the cave.

Maxime Aubert analyzing samples

Photo: Kinez Riza

While studying the parietal art of northern Australia, in 2012, a fellow archaeologist, Adam Brumm, offered to accompany him to Indonesia, where he excavated the floors of caves decorated with paintings.

The Indonesian archipelago is full of cave paintings. In the southwestern peninsula of the island of Sulawesi, also called Celebes, alone, experts now count nearly 300 decorated caves. Several styles coexist there, but the oldest often represent hands in negative and, more rarely, animals.

Two men stand on a rock in a cave.

Maxime Aubert and his colleague Adam Brumm

Photo: Kinez Riza

: we should really try to date them, these paintings, maybe they are old, we don’t know. But when we saw the results the first time, there, wow! We didn’t expect that!”,”text”:”Adam Brumm found a lot of ocher in fairly old occupation levels. When you find ocher, you can’t say directly that it was for painting, maybe it was for something else, but that’s what made us say: we should really try to date them, these paintings, maybe they are old, we don’t know. But when we saw the results the first time, there, wow! We didn’t expect that!”}}”>Adam Brumm found a lot of ocher in fairly old occupation levels. When you find ocher, you can’t say directly that it was for painting, maybe it was for something else, but that’s what made us say: we should really try to date them, these paintings, maybe they are old, we don’t know. But when we saw the results the first time, there, wow! We did not expect that!

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The surprise, indeed, was considerable. In 2014, they published a first article where they described 12 handprints and two animals discovered in seven different caves. The oldest of these paintings is at least 39,900 years old.

Handprints in a cave.

Handprints were discovered in seven different caves in 2014.

Photo: Kinez Riza

While, until then, the oldest known figurative paintings were in Europe, the researchers conclude in their article that000years at both ends of Eurasia”,”text”:”humans were already producing rock art nearly 40,000 years ago at both ends of Eurasia”}}’>humans were already producing rock art nearly 40,000 years ago at both ends of Eurasia.

It completely changed the opinion that everyone had at the time, that in fact modern man just became modern when he arrived in Western Europe, which is completely wrongrelates Maxime Aubert. At the same time, in Western Europe and Southeast Asia, people were doing these paintings, which are very sophisticated, which shows that modern man was really evolved.

Since then, other discoveries have come to reinforce his interpretation. Among others, that of a fresco 4.5 meters wide, representing several animals accompanied by characters. Among other things, we see an anoa, a typical bovine from the island of Sulawesi, which seems to be restrained by figurines using ropes or spears. Perhaps a hunting scene, told by our ancestors at least 43,900 years ago.

Representation of an anoa, a typical bovine of the island of Sulawesi

Representation of an anoa, a typical bovine of the island of Sulawesi

Photo: Griffith University/Ratno Sardi

000 years, […] told stories.”,”text”:”Modern man defines himself as a species that likes to tell stories. What differentiates us from others is that we tell stories, and that is the oldest proof ever found that modern man, at least 44,000 years ago, […] told stories.”}}”>Modern man defines himself as a species that likes to tell stories. What differentiates us from others is that we tell stories, and that is the oldest proof ever found that modern man, at least 44,000 years ago, […] told stories.

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Moreover, the figures represented seem half-human, half-animal. What specialists call therianthropes.000years old, was able to imagine things that don’t exist, and that’s how religions begin”,”text”:”What this suggests is that modern man at that time had the ability not only to depict things that he saw, that existed, so figurative things, but he could also depict things that don’t exist. So modern man, 44,000 years ago, was able to imagine things that don’t exist, and that’s how religions start”}}”>What this suggests is that modern man at that time had the ability not only to depict things that he saw, that existed, so figurative things, but he could also depict things that weren’t. do not exist. So modern man, already 44,000 years ago, was able to imagine things that don’t exist, and that’s how religions startenthuses the archaeologist.

The work of Maxime Aubert and his colleagues thus adds stones to the edifice of our knowledge on the emergence of culture among our ancestors. These paintings and the cognitive abilities needed to create them could be even older.

The drawing of an animal in a cave in the province of Kalimantan, Indonesia.

The bovid appears to us in orange-red tones, but the researchers suspect that the artists had chosen purple instead.

Photo: Griffith University/Pindi Setiawan

Thanks to a new laser spectrometry device, researchers are now able to analyze increasingly thin layers, on the order of the thickness of a hair, in the calcite samples collected from the walls of Indonesian caves.

The idea is to have the thinnest layers possible, as close as possible to the layer of paint. And in fact, it gives us older, much older ages, explains the researcher. How much older? The answer will be in his next publications…

But one can imagine that in the long term, the cave paintings of Southeast Asia will prove to be at least as old as the oldest traces of human presence known further south, at Maxime Aubert, in Australia.

000year. So, in my opinion, these paintings will also possibly date from around 60 or 65000years”,”text”:”We know that modern humans arrived in Australia around 65,000 years ago. So, in my opinion, these paintings will also possibly date from around 60 or 65,000 years ago”}}”>We know that modern humans arrived in Australia around 65,000 years ago. So, in my opinion, these paintings will also possibly date from around 60 or 65,000 years ago.he concludes.

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