Oldest directly dated cave art in Southeast Asia found in Cagayan town

Timothy James Dimacali

Posted at Jun 29 2021 09:18 AM | Updated as of Jun 29 2021 02:34 PM

Oldest directly dated cave art in Southeast Asia found in Cagayan town 1
This anthropomorphic figure, painted using a charcoal-like powder, was directly dated and was found to have been made 3,500 years ago. Researchers believe it may have been made by either Agta or Austronesian settlers. National Museum of the Philippines

A handful of cave drawings — one of which is a little more than a stick figure barely 5 centimeters long with a wide rectangle of a body, its limbs outstretched as if in supplication — in Peñablanca town, Cagayan, have just been confirmed to be some 3,500 years old, making those the oldest directly dated rock art in Southeast Asia. 

A variety of factors, including how and where an artwork was made, often makes it all but impossible to accurately ascertain its age. The famous Angono Petroglyphs, for example, were made by using a tool to scratch into the soft rock, so any attempt to directly date the figures would likely yield the age of the rock itself and not the age of the carvings. 

However, an international team of researchers from the Philippines and Australia succeeded in directly dating the Peñablanca Pictograms— discovered in the 1970s — through a careful chemical analysis of a very small sample of the black pigment used to make the drawings. 

This pigment was found to be composed of carbon black or bone black, a charcoal-like powder made from burned animal or plant remains, possibly from a nearby fire. This dark powder was used to draw not just the shape of a person but also leaves, circles, diamonds, and other figures onto the Peñablanca limestone.

“Somebody stood in Peñablanca and drew this figure, perhaps not knowing that it would be viewed today,” said one of the researchers, Andrea Jalandoni, a National Museum of the Philippines research associate and research fellow at Griffith University, Australia.

But who exactly drew the figures remains a mystery. 

Jalandoni said the age of the drawings places them after the arrival in the Philippines of Agta peoples some 10,000 years ago and the later arrival of Austronesian peoples some 4,000 years ago. Most notably, Peñablanca was also where the 67,000-year-old remains of an entirely new human species, Homo luzonensis, were discovered and identified in 2017.

It remains to be seen if the Peñablanca caves will yield further clues as to pictogram makers’ identity. Later archaeological excavations might possibly uncover, for example, the remains of the fire used as the source of the pigments or perhaps even tools, pottery, and other artifacts that could shed light on the artists’ culture.

Jalandoni said that she hopes the National Museum can help further protect the artworks, even as more efforts are needed to increase public awareness and appreciation of the historical and cultural value of both the site and its contents.

“Rock art adds to the story of our human past,” Jalandoni said. “Standing before these pictograms, you could be smelling the same smells and the same echoes as the people who made them.”

Jalandoni and her team published their findings in the journal, Radiocarbon, in June 2021.