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The cave is cramped and awkward, and rocks crowd into the space, giving the feeling that it might close up at any moment. Scattered on the walls are stencils, human hands outlined against a background of red paint. Though faded, they are stark and evocative, a thrilling message from the distant past. My companion, Maxime Aubert, directs me to a narrow semicircular alcove, like the apse of a cathedral, and I crane my neck to a spot near the ceiling a few feet above my head. Just visible on darkened grayish rock is a seemingly abstract pattern of red lines.
Then my eyes focus and the lines coalesce into a figure, an animal with a large, bulbous body, stick legs and a diminutive head: a babirusa, or pig-deer, once common in these valleys. Aubert points out its neatly sketched features in admiration. He found that it is staggeringly ancient: at least 35, years old. The findings made headlines around the world when Aubert and his colleagues announced them in late , and the implications are revolutionary.
They smash our most common ideas about the origins of art and force us to embrace a far richer picture of how and where our species first awoke. Studies of genes and fossils agree that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa , years ago. Intellectual breakthroughs in human evolution such as tool-making were mastered by other hominin species more than a million years ago. Such sophisticated thinking was a huge competitive advantage, helping us to cooperate, survive in harsh environments and colonize new lands. It also opened the door to imaginary realms, spirit worlds and a host of intellectual and emotional connections that infused our lives with meaning beyond the basic impulse to survive.
And because it enabled symbolic thinking—our ability to let one thing stand for another—it allowed people to make visual representations of things that they could remember and imagine. Until Aubert went to Sulawesi, the oldest dated art was firmly in Europe. The spectacular lions and rhinos of Chauvet Cave, in southeastern France, are commonly thought to be around 30, to 32, years old, and mammoth-ivory figurines found in Germany correspond to roughly the same time. So it has long been assumed that sophisticated abstract thinking, perhaps unlocked by a lucky genetic mutation, emerged in Europe shortly after modern humans arrived there about 40, years ago.
Once Europeans started to paint, their skills, and their human genius, must have then spread around the world. But experts now challenge that standard view. Archaeologists in South Africa have found that the pigment ocher was used in caves , years ago.
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They have also unearthed deliberately pierced shells with marks suggesting they were strung like jewelry, as well as chunks of ocher, one engraved with a zigzag design—hinting that the capacity for art was present long before humans left Africa. Still, the evidence is frustratingly indirect. And the engravings could have been one-offs, doodles with no symbolic meaning, says Wil Roebroeks, an expert in the archaeology of early humans, of Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Other extinct hominin species have left similarly inconclusive artifacts. By contrast, the gorgeous animal cave paintings in Europe represent a consistent tradition. The seeds of artistic creativity may have been sown earlier, but many scholars celebrate Europe as the place where it burst, full-fledged, into view.
Humans were more or less comparable to you and me. Yet the lack of older paintings may not reflect the true history of rock art so much as the fact that they can be very difficult to date. Radiocarbon dating, the kind used to determine the age of the charcoal paintings at Chauvet, is based on the decay of the radioactive isotope carbon and works only on organic remains. This is where Aubert comes in. Instead of analyzing pigment from the paintings directly, he wanted to date the rock they sat on, by measuring radioactive uranium, which is present in many rocks in trace amounts. Uranium decays into thorium at a known rate, so comparing the ratio of these two elements in a sample reveals its age; the greater the proportion of thorium, the older the sample.
But it can also date newer limestone formations, including stalactites and stalagmites, known collectively as speleothems, which form in caves as water seeps or flows through soluble bedrock. To do this would require analyzing almost impossibly thin layers cut from a cave wall—less than a millimeter thick. Then a PhD student at the Australian National University in Canberra, Aubert had access to a state-of-the-art spectrometer, and he started to experiment with the machine, to see if he could accurately date such tiny samples.
Within a few years, Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at the University of Wollongong, where Aubert had received a postdoctoral fellowship—today they are both based at Griffith University—started digging in caves in Sulawesi. Brumm hoped to find them. As they worked, Brumm and his Indonesian colleagues were struck by the hand stencils and animal images that surrounded them.
But the archaeological evidence showed that modern humans had arrived on Sulawesi at least 35, years ago. Could some of the paintings be older? After that, Brumm looked for paintings partly obscured by speleothems every chance he got. As soon as he got home, he told Aubert to come to Sulawesi. Aubert spent a week the next summer touring the region by motorbike. He took samples from five paintings partly covered by popcorn, each time using a diamond-tipped drill to cut a small square out of the rock, about 1.
Back in Australia, he spent weeks painstakingly grinding the rock samples into thin layers before separating out the uranium and thorium in each one. Unable to get funding for the project, he had to pay for his flight to Sulawesi—and for the analysis—himself. The very first age Aubert calculated was for a hand stencil from the Cave of Fingers. I said, are you sure? I had the feeling immediately that this was going to be big. The caves we visit in Sulawesi are astonishing in their variety. They range from small rock shelters to huge caverns inhabited by venomous spiders and large bats.
Everywhere there is evidence of how water has formed and changed these spaces. The rock is bubbling and dynamic, often glistening wet.
It erupts into shapes resembling skulls, jellyfish, waterfalls and chandeliers. As well as familiar stalactites and stalagmites, there are columns, curtains, steps and terraces—and popcorn everywhere. It grows like barnacles on the ceilings and walls. This story is a selection from the January-February issue of Smithsonian magazine. Ramli knows the art in these caves intimately.
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The first one he visited, as a student in , was a small site called Leang Kassi. He remembers it well, he says, not least because while staying overnight in the cave he was captured by local villagers who thought he was a headhunter. Almost all of the markings he shows me, in ocher and charcoal, appear in relatively exposed areas, lit by the sun.
And they were apparently made by all members of the community. At one site, I climb a fig tree into a small, high chamber and am rewarded by the outline of a hand so small it could belong to my 2-year-old son.
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This one reminds me of a cocky little rooster," says Ron Ellisor, a wizened, white-haired man, whose bomber was shot down somewhere near Seoul half a century ago. The main reason is to get this one out. Kerry's the only choice. It's hot and dry and the air burns the throat, like sucking on a hairdryer. Although there is an awfully long drive ahead, I am inclined to linger and listen to Ellisor and his political views, which are as clear and uncluttered as the desert landscape.
Every day it's slipping further into debt," he continues. As I start to head back to the car, the door of Ellisor's trailer home opens and his wife, Randy, appears. I don't know how she puts up with me. Strange as it may seem, it is the opinions of year-old Ellisor and those like him that have brought me, on this sun-blasted morning, to the back country of Arizona and beyond for what was somewhat grandly conceived as a transcontinental political pulse-taking - a coast-to-coast vox pop - as America prepares for the most important presidential election in a generation.
The original scheme - planned, it has to be said, without proper recourse to a detailed map - had been to traverse this vast country using only its backroads.
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