Cave paintings on the island of Borneo showing animals and human hands have recently been dated back some 40,000 years, making them the oldest known example of figurative rock art in the world. (Details of the story can be found in various articles, including one here from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.)
Think for a moment about how long ago that is. Forty thousand years. It takes my breath away.
I’ve been fascinated by rock art for many years and have been fortunate to see examples in South Africa, Namibia, Australia, Chile and Peru. While the particulars of the paintings differ from country to country, the underlying impulse seems to be the same: a need to put a human mark on the world we live in.
In Australia, aboriginal art of all kinds is an expression of cultural identity and connection to country. The act of painting is generally more important than the painting itself, so older rock paintings are often covered by more recent ones.
Scientists have established a chronology of paintings showing how they have changed over millennia. Stylistic differences in Kakadu reflect changes as the climate warmed after the Ice Age, gradually producing the shrubland typical of arid Australia today.
As the environment became more productive and more food resources were available, aboriginal populations and cultural diversity increased, resulting in a wider variety of painting styles.
Paintings of animals and other food stuffs that populations depended on are found in rock art in every country where I’ve seen it. The paintings may document what existed at the time or may be a way to increase animal abundance, ensuring successful hunts.
Fish were an important source of food in Australia’s Northern Territory, and paintings that date back 20,000 years or more show the variety that existed.
Paintings depicted important events as well as sources of nourishment. In South Africa, hidden in a crevice in the earth, a painting showed a procession of women along with one young girl. An initiation rite? Quite possibly.
More recent events are also shown. Sailing ships, men dressed in European clothes, a simple Dutch-style pipe and a man on horseback attest to the arrival of Europeans in Australia and elsewhere. What could be a train is scratched into a stone wall in the Atacama desert in Chile.
Regardless of their artistic merit, these paintings draw me in emotionally in powerful ways. Whether depicting illness …
… or chronicling the dreams that underpin aboriginal relations with the land …
… the rock paintings are compelling. The images are both realistic and suggestive. They take into account the uneven surfaces of rocks and pay little or no attention to orientation based on western principles. Whether shown up or down, the power and the authenticity are the same.
One element is common to rock art in all the countries where I’ve seen it. Hand prints.
However presented, hand marks attest to a human presence and to a need to make that presence visible.
Forty thousand years ago, humans around the world were marking their place in the world. Cave paintings in Europe, France and Spain in particular, date from roughly the same period as the recently dated paintings in Borneo, give or take several thousands of years. The fact that these paintings have existed in so many places for so long underlines how important it is, and has always been, for us to depict our surroundings and the way we live.
We continue to do this, too often in ways that are neither artistically nor environmentally positive. Perhaps we should pay attention to how our ancestors imprinted themselves on the world and follow their lead.