First-ever Oil Paintings Found in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Scientists have found what they described this week as the earliest oil paintings ever discovered.

Murals found on cave walls in Afghanistan prove that painting with oil had been going on in Asia for centuries before artists used the technique in Europe, scientists said this week.

Until now, art historians believed that oil painting started in Europe in the 15th century.

Scientists found the murals in a network of caves where monks lived and prayed in the Afghan region of Bamiyan, according to a statement on the Web site of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, where the ancient paintings were analyzed.

Until 2001, two colossal 6th-century statues of Buddhas stood at the mouth of the caves. Then the Taliban, which then ruled Afghanistan, blew up the statues on the grounds that they were un-Islamic. The action drew international condemnation.

Inside the caves, scientists found murals painted in the 7th century. They show images of Buddha in vermilion robes sitting cross-legged amid palm leaves and mythical creatures.

In 12 of 50 caves, the murals were painted using drying oils -- perhaps from walnuts and poppy seeds -- the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility said.

Its findings on the age of the oil paintings were published this week in The Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry.

"This is the earliest clear example of oil paintings in the world," said Yoko Taniguchi, leader of the team of scientists.

Bamiyan, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) northwest of Kabul, was once a thriving center of commerce and Buddhism. The paintings, scientists say, were probably the work of artists who traveled along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route between China, across Central Asia's desert to the West.

The Taliban used dozens of explosives to demolish the Buddha statues in Bamiyan.

Museums and governments around the world had hoped to save the two Buddhas, the earliest of which is thought to have been carved into sandstone cliffs in the third century A.D.

At heights of 53 meters and 36 meters, the statues were the tallest standing Buddhas in the world.

Later in 2001, U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Now, the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, is trying to restore the bigger of the two statues. The task could take years.

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