Is this the world’s oldest work of art? Sequence of hand and footprints discovered on the Tibetan Plateau dates back up to 226,000 years – and may be ‘prehistoric graffiti’ left by children 

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  • The ‘art panel’ was first discovered in 2018 on a rocky outcrop in Qesang
  • The prints were made in limestone deposited near hot springs that had hardened
  • Even a conservative dating estimate makes it 3-4 times older than other rock art.
  • The team believes the prints were left by two children aged around seven and 12.
  • It is not clear which species made the art, but Denisovans are known from the area.

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Researchers believe they may have identified the oldest known work of art – a sequence of five hand and footprints believed to be 226,000 years old.

According to researchers from Guangzhou University in China, the raids are at least 3-4 times older than cave paintings from France, Indonesia and Spain.

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The team has said that found in 2018 on a rocky outpost in Quesang on the Tibetan Plateau, the prints may be ‘prehistoric graffiti’ left by young Denisovan children.

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Researchers believe they may have identified the oldest known work of art – a sequence of five hand and footprints believed to be 226,000 years old. Image: Prints visible when presented in a three-dimensional scan of the surface on which they were dropped

According to researchers from Guangzhou University in China, the raids (pictured) are at least 3-4 times older than the cave paintings of France, Indonesia and Spain.

According to researchers from Guangzhou University in China, the raids (pictured) are at least 3-4 times older than the cave paintings of France, Indonesia and Spain.

Found in 2018 on a rocky outcrop in Quesang on the Tibetan Plateau (pictured), the prints may be 'prehistoric graffiti' left behind by young Denisovan children, the team has said

Found in 2018 on a rocky outcrop in Quesang on the Tibetan Plateau (pictured), the prints may be ‘prehistoric graffiti’ left behind by young Denisovan children, the team has said

It's not certain which species of humans made the prints - but Denisovans are a fair bet, given that their skeletons are found elsewhere on the Tibetan Plateau.  Pictured: An artist's impression of a young Denisovan

It’s not certain which species of humans made the prints – but Denisovans are a fair bet, given that their skeletons are found elsewhere on the Tibetan Plateau. Pictured: An artist’s impression of a young Denisovan

Who actually made the prints?

Based on uranium series dating, researchers have determined that the prints may have been left between 169,000–226,000 years ago.

And the measurements of the prints have led the team to conclude that the footprints were made by a child of about seven years old and the handprints were more than 12 years old.

It’s not certain which species of humans made the prints – but Denisovans are a fair bet, given that their skeletons are found elsewhere on the Tibetan Plateau.

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To help with the question of whether prints constituted art, the team turned to archaeologist Thomas Urban of Cornell University in New York, whose research includes the study of human footprints in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park.

The first clue, he explained, came from the fact that the prints were pressed into travertine—a form of terrestrial limestone that accumulates around hot springs—which would gradually harden over time.

‘It would have been a slippery, sloping surface,’ Mr Urban said.

‘You really won’t run across it. No one fell like this. So why create this arrangement of prints? There is no utilitarian explanation for these. So what are they?’

‘My point of view was, can we think of these as constructive behaviour, something uniquely human. The interesting part of it is that it is so quick.

‘These little kids saw the medium and deliberately changed it. Beyond that we can only speculate.

‘It could be a performance of sorts, a live show – like, someone says, “Hey, look at me, I’ve got my handprints on these footprints.” ‘

Further evidence for the intentional nature of the impressions comes from the fact that handprints are absolutely preserved in the rock – unlike footprints, these are rare in the fossil record of human ancestors.

According to the team, the presence of handprints links Tibetan impressions to a long tradition of art that includes the hand stenciling of cave walls.

Dated to between 169,000–226,000 years ago, however, the Qisang art panel is much older than its more famous peers.

For example, art found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and in Spain’s El Castillo cave date back to about 40,000–45,000 years ago, while the Chauvet cave paintings from France are only some 30,000 years old.

'It must have been a slippery, sloping surface into which the print was pressed,' said researcher Thomas Urban.  'You really won't run across it.  No one fell like this.  So why create this arrangement of prints?  There is no utilitarian explanation for these.'

‘It must have been a slippery, sloping surface into which the print was pressed,’ said researcher Thomas Urban. ‘You really won’t run across it. No one fell like this. So why create this arrangement of prints? There is no utilitarian explanation for these.’

'My point of view was, can we think of these as constructive behaviour, something uniquely human.  The interesting side of this is that it's very early,

‘My point of view was, can we think of these as constructive behaviour, something uniquely human. The interesting side of this is that it’s very early,” said Mr Urban, who is from Cornell University.

'These little kids saw the medium and deliberately changed it.  Beyond that we can only speculate.  It could be a performance of sorts, a live show - like, say,

‘These little kids saw the medium and deliberately changed it. Beyond that we can only speculate. It could be a performance of sorts, a live show – like, someone says, “Hey, look at me, I’ve got my handprints on these footprints,” Mr. Urban said. Image: a scan of the rock

Of course, some connoisseurs may insist on the notion that the quesang in itself creates art.

‘Different camps have specific definitions of art that prioritize different criteria,’ remarked Mr. Urban.

He continued: ‘But I want to transcend this and say that there may be limits imposed by these strict categories that may prevent us from thinking more broadly about constructive behavior.

‘I think we can make a convincing case that this is not utilitarian behaviour. There is something playful, creative, possibly symbolic about it.

‘It comes down to a very fundamental question of what it really means to be human.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal science bulletin.
Further evidence for the intentional nature of the impressions comes from the fact that handprints are absolutely preserved in the rock – unlike footprints, these are rare in the fossil record of human ancestors.  Image: One of the footprints of the Tibetan Art Panel

Further evidence for the intentional nature of the impressions comes from the fact that handprints are absolutely preserved in the rock – unlike footprints, these are rare in the fossil record of human ancestors. Image: One of the footprints of the Tibetan Art Panel

According to the team, the presence of handprints links Tibetan impressions to a long tradition of art that includes the hand stenciling of cave walls.  Date between 169,000–226,000 years ago, however, the art panel of Qiamsang is much older than that of its peers.

According to the team,…

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