Washington, February 7 : A new chemical analysis suggests that Buddhist paintings from Afghanistan's famed Bamian caves are the world's earliest known oil paintings, say researchers.
The researchers say that the murals, dated to around the 7th century A.D., predate the origins of similar sophisticated painting techniques in medieval Europe and the Mediterranean by more than a hundred years.
It is believed that the discovery may also provide insights into cultural exchange along the Silk Road connecting east and west Asia during that time period.
The UN World Heritage-listed Bamian Valley is well known as the home of two giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
During the study, the scientists used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to the composition of the paint used in samples from 12 caves and the two destroyed giant Buddhas.
The analysis of the caves, first since the 1920s, showed that the samples contained oil and resin-based paints that the scientists believe were the earliest known use of either substance for painting.
While presenting the findings at a recent international symposium in Tokyo, Yoko Taniguchi of the Japan Center for International Cooperation in Conservation said that the murals were painted using a structured, multi-layered technique reminiscent of early European methods.
Taniguchi said that the murals typically had a white base layer of a lead compound, followed by an upper layer of natural or artificial pigments mixed with either resins or walnut or poppy seed drying oils.
She noted that the technique used to create them appeared to depict Indian, West Chinese, and Mediterranean influences.
Though drying oils were being used throughout Europe by around A.D. 800, the chemical properties of oils suggest that they were known long before then.
Taniguchi, however, admitted that not all of the cave murals contained oil-based paints, or used them in the same way.
"Some paintings from other caves were depicted with different materials and techniques. This shows how different painting techniques were introduced in Bamian from different regions in different periods of time," National Geographic quoted her as saying.
Taniguchi said that further analysis of Central Asian sites might provide even older examples of oil-based paintings.
Sharon Cather, a wall-painting expert from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, said: "The discovery of the use of oil (in Afghanistan) is important, because it shows that these undervalued paintings are far more important and far more sophisticated than anyone might have thought."