The oldest known cave paintings have been discovered in Borneo, or rather rediscovered since somebody knew about them once, when they were being made, and no one knows for how long after that before the knowledge was lost. The art dates back at least 52,000 years. One of the interesting things about this is that previously the oldest cave paintings were thought to be in Europe, dating back 35,000 or 40,000 years. People didn’t arrive in Borneo until 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, steadily progressing across the planet after first migrating out of Africa around two million years ago, give or take a few millenia.
One of the biggest questions about cave paintings is, what do they mean? And if you think modern art is hard to understand try making sense of art from fifty-thousand years ago. In the book The Cave Painters Gregory Curtis examines multiple ideas–that they were markers of clan identity, that they served shamanistic or religious purposes, that pictures of animals or hunters pursuing them may have been meant to increase herds or aid in the hunt–and takes down the weaknesses of all of them. The fact is we just don’t know why people made cave paintings not just thousands of years ago but continued making them for thousands of years.
Researchers have also wondered why it took so long after they arrived in an area for people to start making cave paintings. And I have some thoughts of my own on that. Caves are remarkably good at preserving things but I think humans were creating art long before that. Cave paintings are maybe the most badass forms of early art: many remained unknown for so long because they were so deep in caves, in places that were difficult to reach, that were in total darkness. Cave painters had to work by firelight, often in cramped spaces. Their work wasn’t likely to be seen by most people at the time it was created. And then there’s the fact that cave paintings don’t just span across millenia but also continents, all speaking to two fundamental human needs: the need to move and explore, and the need to create art. And maybe those two needs aren’t unrelated. Travel is a way of exploring the world around us; art translates the explorations of the worlds within us.