Where are the Malaysian scientist?

The 40,000 years old cave drawing

ONE of the most exhilarating global news headlines last week announced the discovery of the world's oldest known animal drawing deep inside a cave in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Experts believe the drawing is at least 40,000 years old, edging out the cave drawings in France and Spain that historians had previously assumed to be oldest.

The large (about 1.5m wide) red image depicts the silhouette of an unidentified animal but probably a species of wild cattle still found in the jungles of Borneo. The animal could be the "banteng", well known to the people living in our part of the world.

Said Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in Australia and lead author of the study, published in the journal,Nature: "It is now the earliest known figurative artwork." Cave paintings are a fascinating part of human history, revealing the first attempts at artistic expression, and the things that were most important to our earliest ancestors. Cave paintings and drawings have been discovered all over the globe, and studying this primitive art has revealed surprising similarities worldwide.

Until recently, the common belief was that cave painting originated in Europe, where some of the best known and oldest examples of the form have been discovered, and that this skill then travelled around the globe.

This new discovery in Borneo may tell a very different story.

Archaeologists have been discovering cave paintings and ancient sculptures for centuries, but it was only in the mid-20th century that it became possible to determine their age with any precision.

Traces of radioactive carbon are present in some types of art, and scientists gauge their age by measuring how long the carbon has been breaking down.

Scientists suspected that older art dating back thousands of years was still out there, but radiocarbon dating has limits. Many cave paintings lack the carbon required to date them. Moreover, the half-life of radioactive carbon is only 5,730 years. In a sample that's 40,000 years old or older, all of the carbon required to date it may be long gone.

In recent years, scientists have developed a new dating method. When water trickles down cave walls, it can leave behind a translucent curtain of minerals called a flowstone. If a flowstone contains uranium, it will decay steadily – and at a predictable rate into thorium.

Aubert was invited to participate in the research by two Indonesian colleagues: Pindi Setiawan, an archaeologist at Institut Teknologi Bandung and Adhi Agus Oktaviana, of the Indonesian National Centre for Archaeological Research, both of whom spent years studying drawings in remote mountain caves there.

The story above is also a fine example of international research collaboration deserving of applause and encouragement.

However, it also suggests that researchers in the developing world continue to be led by colleagues from the advanced countries, as well as the low priority accorded to scientific research in our national setting.

This is not unique to Indonesia; we in Malaysia have our own share of experiences. In 2009, a team of British scientists led by Professor Chris Thomas from the University of York conducted a study of moths on Mount Kinabalu. This was actually a repeat of a similar study of the same sites conducted four decades earlier by a group of visiting students from the United Kingdom.

The group of six, including a member of the original trip, found that on average, the insects had raised the altitude of their range up to 67m as temperatures rose. This seminal study, published in the prestigious journal,Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, suggests that global warming is forcing tropical species to relocate to a higher elevation at a rate of more than a metre a year.

The results are also supported by other studies of tropical species in Madagascar, Monte Verde and Costa Rica, and temperate species in North America and Europe.

The question is, where are the Malaysian scientists who should be doing this kind of research in our own backyard?

Southeast Asia is one of the earth's greatest centres of biodiversity. Indeed, it is one of the grandest living biology labs on earth and a field experiment station for many illustrious naturalists who have made tremendous contributions to science in the past. These include Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of the "Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection". The latter did his observations in South America, in particular the Galapagos Islands. Wallace conducted his fieldwork in the Malay Peninsular and Borneo, finely documented in his classic book,The Malay Archipelago, published in 1869.

While we should continue fostering research collaboration on a global scale, we should revisit the notion of initiating and leading research on local and regional issues ourselves. In that light, the recent remarks by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, during his acceptance speech of an honorary doctorate from the National University of Singapore (NUS), that there should be more research collaboration between NUS and the University of Malaya, are worth serious elaboration and pursuit.