The reddish-orange drawing of an unrecognizable animal is at least 40,000 years old, according to the study led by Maxime Aubert of the Griffith University in Australia's Gold Coast.
The finding was published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
This finding adds to the mounting view that cave art – one of the most important innovations in human cultural history – did not arise in Europe as long believed, and that "ice age" artists in South-east Asia played a key role in its development, the researchers said.
The limestone caves in remote and rugged mountains of East Kalimantan, an Indonesian province of Borneo, have been known to contain prehistoric rock paintings, drawings and other imagery since the 1990s.
The researchers have grouped the work into three phases: red-orange paintings of animals (mainly wild cattle) and hand stencils; younger, mulberry-coloured hand stencils and intricate motifs; and human figures, boats and geometric designs in black pigment.
The dates obtained from calcium carbonate samples collected from the near-inaccessible cave art provided the first reliable estimates for the approximate time of rock art production, and were far older than previously thought, Aubert said.
"The oldest cave art image we dated is a large painting of an unidentified animal, probably a species of wild cattle still found in the jungles of Borneo – this has a minimum age of around 40,000 years and is now the earliest-known figurative artwork," the associate professor added.