Home » World’s oldest cave painting scene found in Indonesia, scientists say

World’s oldest cave painting scene found in Indonesia, scientists say

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Among the hundreds of caves hidden in the limestone karsts of Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, a work of art faded into a rock wall could be of global importance. A depiction of three humanoid figures and a pig, the painting is the oldest known scene created by humans, dated to at least 51,200 years ago, scientists say.

It was evidence that humans were capable of storytelling in the distant past, said Adam Brumm, a professor of archaeology at Griffith University’s Australian Research Center for Human Evolution and an author of the study, which was published in Nature on Thursday.

“Storytelling is a hugely important part of human evolution, and possibly even it helps to explain our success as a species,” he said in a briefing about the research. “But finding evidence for it in art, especially in very early cave art, is exceptionally rare.”

“We don’t know exactly what’s going on in this scene,” he added of the cave painting. “But it’s clearly communicating some sort of story that involves the interaction between these three humanlike figures and the pig.”

The Sulawesi residents of 50,000 B.C. or so were “besotted” with painting pigs, depicting them over and over again in cave art there, Brumm said. Archaeological evidence suggests they hunted the species, called the Celebes warty pig. The cave’s elevated position, which would not have been convenient for everyday life, could suggest they went there specifically to paint or to paint as part of some other special practice, he added.

“I think what we have now, from the early Sulawesi cave art findings, is the world’s earliest known surviving evidence for imaginative storytelling in the use of scenes in art,” he said.

The site is somewhat of a hot spot for significant cave painting discoveries. Previous finds on Sulawesi in recent years were dated to between 40,000 and 44,000 years old, which was then the oldest scene of cave art found. There are at least 300 cave and shelter art sites preserved in the area, many of which have not been closely studied.

The research team, co-led by the Indonesian National Research and Innovation Agency and Australia’s Griffith University and Southern Cross University, used a new method of dating by analyzing accumulated layers of calcium carbonate on top of the painting. They also revised the date for the 44,000-year-old work to closer to 48,000.

The oldest known cave paintings in the world were made by Neanderthals, scientists believe. About 65,000 years ago, members of our doomed cousin species left handprints, lines and shapes in three caves in modern-day Spain — at least 20 millennia before modern humans are believed to have arrived on the continent.

The famous cave art at Lascaux, France, is dated to a maximum age of about 21,000 years.

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