Research led by two Griffith University scientists and which overturned long-held beliefs about the origins of art has been named as one of the top 10 scientific achievements of 2014.
In the October 9 issue of the journal Nature, Dr Maxime Aubert and Dr Adam Brumm were lead authors on a paper reporting the discovery of 40,000-year-old rock art on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Both are Australian Research Council DECRA fellows at Griffith, with Dr Aubert part of the Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit (PERAHU) within the School of Humanities, and Dr Brumm part of the Environmental Futures Research Institute within the School of Environment.
Their findings immediately changed traditional views that Europe was the birthplace of modern human creativity and artistic expression.
“In fact, cave painting and related forms of artistic expression were most likely part of the cultural traditions of the first modern humans to spread out of Africa and into Asia and Australia, long before they reached Europe,’’ said Dr Brumm at the time.
Meanwhile, the journal Science noted: “The new dates in Indonesia end Europe’s monopoly on early symbolic art … and could rewrite the history of a key stage in the development of the human mind.”
Since 1996, Science writers and editors have selected what they regard as the most important scientific accomplishment of the year, along with nine runners-up. Past winners of the Breakthrough of the Year include the discovery of the Higgs boson – an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics — the development of cancer immunotherapy and the invention of antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV.
The 2014 winner was the landing of the Philae probe on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. According to Science: “It captured the world’s attention and reminded us of the immense scope of human scientific accomplishment, as well as how far we have yet to go.”
The inclusion of the Griffith research is noteworthy because, of the 100 discoveries acknowledged by Science in the past 10 years, only seven have related to human evolution or world archaeology.
The scientific team led by Dr Aubert and Dr Brumm determined the age of the Sulawesi paintings by measuring the ratio of uranium and thorium isotopes in small stalactite-like growths, called ‘cave popcorn’, which had formed over the art.
Using this high-precision method known as U-series dating, samples from 14 paintings at seven caves were shown to range in age from 39,900 to 17,400 years ago. However, as the cave popcorn grew on top of the paintings, the U-series dates only provide minimum ages for the art, which could be much older.
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