Maxime Aubert can only imagine who might have painted the ocher-colored creature onto the cave’s limestone walls. He can merely speculate about what the image may have meant to the person who created it. He’s not even entirely certain what kind of animal it’s supposed to be — a wild cow, perhaps?

But of this, he feels sure: The more than 40,000-year-old art in a remote cave in Indonesia — the oldest figurative painting ever found — represents a turning point in human history. It marks a moment when our ancestors started to speak in symbols, when people realized the power of pictures to communicate their fears, desires and dreams.

Tens of thousands of years after they were created, these faded works by long-dead artists have something important to tell us about ourselves. The age of the newly discovered animal art, reported in the journal Nature, suggests that people thousands of miles away from each other were undergoing the same transformation at the same time.

“Maybe it’s universal,” said Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University in Australia. “Art … is something that we as humans just do.”

The cow-like creature is among scores of newfound images of hand prints, animals, people and geometric designs that adorn a network of limestone caverns in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. The images span tens of thousands of years of history and appear to represent distinct phases in the development of art.