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Rock art origins reappraised

An ancient rock painting depicting a catfish at a Phnom Kulen site near Siem Reap
An ancient rock painting depicting a ‘catfish’ at a Phnom Kulen site near Siem Reap. NOEL HIDALGO TAN

Rock art origins reappraised

Recent discoveries in Southeast Asia’s rock art are painting a new history of the prehistoric tradition’s origins.

The yellow and red ochre depictions of animals and humans, which have long been studied in Western Europe’s caves, have less famous twin motifs sprinkled throughout Southeast Asia, including in Cambodia. According to new studies, these paintings thousands of miles apart may also be equally ancient, throwing into contention previous theories that the budding creativity of Europe’s hunter-gatherers was later carried across continents.

“These are testimony to a worldwide behavioural practice among early modern humans, not the isolated cultural invention of specific regional communities and populations,” researchers stated this week in the archaeological journal Antiquity.

Traipsing through sites in Cambodia, China, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, the field researchers demonstrated that a handprint and “pig-deer” in Sulawesi, Indonesia, that were recently dated to be 35,000 to 40,000 years old are hardly an anomaly. Instead, the art was practiced widely across the region around the same time that the famous cave painters in France were etching their marks onto stone.

The oldest surviving prehistoric painting currently known is a red disk on the wall of a northern Spanish cave that’s thought to be at least 40,800 years old.

Using overlapping superimpositions of paintings, radiocarbon dating and computer-manipulated scans, the new research determined Southeast Asia’s oldest paintings may also fall within that range.

“We believe that modern humans living a hunter-gatherer existence brought the practice of making rock art with them when they left Africa over 60,000 years ago. They brought this practice to the new places they moved into,” said Paul Tacon, chair in rock art research at Australia’s Griffith University and lead researcher in the study.

“In the process, they socialised landscapes, changing them from totally natural places to locations with human cultural meaning.”

In Cambodia, rock art is an incredibly new discovery, and has not yet been dated, according to the research team.

“We only found rock art about two to three years ago,” said Im Sokrithy, an archaeologist at Apsara who contributed to the report. “Based on comparisons to other sites in the region, we can estimate that it is very old, maybe from 4,000 BC, maybe earlier. But we don’t know yet because we need more study and analysis.”

Three sites in Cambodia have so far been found to contain prehistoric rock art of uncertain age: Phnom Kulen, the Cardamoms and north of Banteay Chhmar.

“When we think of archaeology in Cambodia, we immediately think about Angkor and the temples.… It has only been in the recent decades that archaeologists have been looking at the pre-Angkorian and prehistoric periods of Cambodia, which is why we are only just noticing rock art now,” said Noel Hidalgo Tan, a senior archaeologist at the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts in Bangkok and one of the report’s researchers.

“My guess is that there are many more sites to be discovered in other parts of Cambodia,” he added.

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