A faded and fractured painting of a beast on the wall of a limestone cave in Borneo may just be the oldest known example of figurative rock art, being at least 40,000 years old, say researchers.

The image depicts what is probably a species of wild cattle that still lives on the island, with one streak of ochre that resembles a spear protruding from its flank. The animal is one of three large creatures on a wall in the Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave in East Kalimantan province of Borneo, Indonesia. The region’s rock art, which includes thousands of paintings in limestone caves, has been studied from 1994 when the images were first spotted by Luc-Henri Fage.

Above and between the three beasts are hand stencils. The markings, which appear singularly or in groups, are made by spraying ochre paint from the mouth over a hand pressed on to the rock.

Scientists came up with ages for the paintings by dating calcite crusts that dot the walls of limestone caves. Those underneath a painting give a maximum age for the artwork, while those on top provide a minimum age. If the measurement is accurate the Borneo paintings may be 4,500 years older than the art in the cave walls on the neighbouring Sulawesi island.