Drawings exist from much earlier, but they merely depict symbols, including the oldest probable known rock drawing with ochre crayon, dating back 73,000 years found at a cave near Cape Town in South Africa. The earliest drawings of animals in the French cave of Chauvet have been dated to about 33,500 to 37,000 years ago.
This, the archaeologists said, indicates a cultural shift around 20,000 years ago, with the focus of art moving from the natural world to one dominated by the human experience.
The team called it "the oldest figurative rock art image in the world", as far as they know, and "one of the earliest-known figurative representations of an animal", being comparable in age with the mammoth-ivory figurines from the Swabian region of Germany.
At least 40,000 years ago, ancient humans made their way through the rugged landscape of Borneo, in Southeast Asia, to access a cave, hanging from a cliff and paint an animal on its roof. Painted in a remote limestone cavern, they are more than 4000 years older than the previous record holders on nearby Sulawesi, and they add to evidence that thriving artistic traditions were emerging simultaneously in Europe and Asia.
In the 1990s, Indonesian and French archaeologists trekked into the remote interior mountains of East Kalimantan, an Indonesian province of Borneo.
Researchers say that the 5-foot-wide sketch is at least 40,000 years old.
The world's oldest figurative painting has been found in a cave, along with other phases showing a progression of human artwork, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. Setiawan has studied the art since its discovery, and, along with ARKENAS rock art expert Adhi Agus Oktaviana, leads expeditions to the Kalimantan caves. Instead of depicting animals, artists began to paint humans, intricate motifs and hand stencils using mulberry-colored pigment. Through dating, a study has found that the cave paintings are approximate 40,000 years old.
Prof Alistair Pike, an archaeologist from the University of Southampton - who was not involved with the new research - welcomed the findings, but expressed reservations about the date for the oldest figurative painting.
The animal appears to have a spear shaft stuck in its flank and is one of a series of similar red-orange coloured paintings, which were made with iron-oxide pigment.
"Who the ice age artists of Borneo were and what happened to them is a mystery", said team co-leader Pindi Setiawan, an archeologist at the Bandung Institute of Technology who worked on the study team. The transition to depicting the human world hints a significant change occurred in the region, according to researchers.
A photo of cave painting in Borneo.
To come up with the 40,000-year date for the painting of the animal, Dr Aubert and colleagues used scientific dating techniques on calcium carbonate deposits which are associated with the image.
Limestone karst of East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. "It's an intimate window into the past". Although humans arrived in Southeast Asia between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago, there has been no art discovered that dates to that time.
"This possibly reflects the arrival of another wave of humans, or a natural evolution in art development coinciding with the onset of the Large Glacial Maximum and a potential increase in population size in that part of Borneo, owing to more favorable conditions for humans", Aubert said. "We can see how people lived a long time ago in a way that archaeology can't provide".