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. "It's really like they are talking to us from 40,000 years ago".
Their goal was to more precisely determine the age of a series of images found within the caves, which were discovered in the 1990s.
Forty thousand years ago, Borneo was not an island but a part of continental Asia when the sea levels were lower, the researchers said. The artists in this phase favored a dark mulberry-purple color and painted hand stencils, abstract signs and human-like figures wearing elaborate headdresses and engaging in various activities, such as hunting or ritualistic dancing, the researchers said.
Now, as they report today in Nature, Aubert's joint Indonesian-Australia team has dated a painting of what may be a banteng, a Southeast Asian wild cattle, in Borneo's Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave, to at least 40,000 years ago; hand stencils there may be up to 52,000 years old, making them among the oldest such prints in the world.
Maxime Aubert said: "It looks like there was a transition from depicting the animal world to [depicting] the human world. We don't know if these are from two different groups of humans or if it represents the evolution of a particular culture". 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.
The artwork, which is at least 40,000 years old, is thought to be the oldest example of figurative painting - where real objects are depicted rather than abstract shapes.
How exactly the art was made is also unknown. In a cave wall deep in the forests of the isle of Borneo, archaeologists have just confirmed that a depiction of some sort of cow is the world's oldest known figurative piece of art.
So what does this tell us about humans living in the area at the time? "The discovery of three different chronological styles is quite unbelievable, as we can follow the evolution and changes of rock art over 50,000 years", says Francois-Xavier Ricaut, a biological anthropologist from the University of Toulouse in France, who has also been working on Borneo.
"We think it wasn't just food for them - it meant something special", said Aubert. Populations also could have boomed later, between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago.
Or maybe the art itself was "exported", so to speak, traveling from place to place and beginning at different stages as humans learned art. Around this time rare paintings of humans started to appear, during a period when the climate was in the most extreme wraps of an ice age.
As for the red bull, its meaning remains a mystery.
So how do you date a rock painting?
The paintings were high on the cave walls and ceiling, contrasting with the black drawings in the more accessible areas of the cave, Aubert said.
The discovery of calcite on top of the paintings was crucial because the researchers date when it formed, as opposed to the actual pigments.
It works like this: rainwater seeps through the limestone and dissolves small amounts of uranium. "If we take a sample [from] thousands of years later and measure the ratio of uranium versus thorium, we can calculate the age of the coating". First you must canoe up a tropical river.
"This is a remarkably important finding", says Sue O'Connor, an archaeologist at Australian National University in Canberra who focuses on Southeast Asia and Australia, but was not involved in the new study. That excavation will happen next year. It's unclear where modern human rock art first emerged or if it arose independently in multiple regions around the same time, however. And the age of the art, from Borneo to Sulawesi, suggests a migration pattern.
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