Archaeologists say they’ve found the oldest known artistic depiction of a natural creature — a painting of a warty pig that’s at least 45,500 years old, found inside a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
“The Sulawesi warty pig painting we found in the limestone cave of Leang Tedongnge is now the earliest known representational work of art in the world, as far as are aware,” study co-author Adam Brumm of Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution said today in a news release.
Brumm and his colleagues discovered the painting during an expedition in 2017. It’s part of a scene that appears to show three or four animals facing off against each other on the cave wall.
The painting’s age — reported in Science Advances, an open-access journal — was estimated by using a uranium-series dating technique on mineral deposits that formed over the painting. The researchers behind the find say the artwork could be thousands of years older.
In any case, the reported minimum age beats out the previous record for representational art, which was held by a 44,000-year-old hunting scene found by the same research team in a different Sulawesi cave. The better-known paintings in France’s Chauvet Cave are thought to be a mere 32,000 years old.
The emphasis here is on “representational” art: Cave paintings in Spain that show geometric patterns and hand stencils have been assigned a minimum age of more than 64,000 years. Those simple paintings are so old that anthropologists suggest they were created by Neanderthals rather than anatomically modern humans.
In contrast, the team behind the latest find suspect the pig paintings were created by modern humans — although they can’t be sure. The red ochre outlines of artists’ hands were found in the Indonesian caves as well as the Spanish caves. hinting at an eerie parallel.
Yet another pig painting, found by the team in a cave called Leang Balangajia 1 in 2018, was dated to a minimum age of 32,000 years.
“Humans have hunted Sulawesi warty pigs for tens of thousands of years,” study co-author Basran Burhan said. “These pigs were the most commonly portrayed animal in the ice age rock art of the island, suggesting they have long been valued both as food and a focus of creative thinking and artistic expression.”
The Sulawesi rock art ranks among the earliest archaeological evidence for anatomically modern humans in the vast zone of oceanic islands between Asia and Australia-New Guinea – a zone known as Wallacea.
“Our species must have crossed through Wallacea by watercraft in order to reach Australia by at least 65,000 years ago,” said Maxime Aubert, a dating specialist from the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research. “However, the Wallacean islands are poorly explored, and presently the earliest excavated archaeological evidence from this region is much younger in age.”
Based on the findings so far, the Griffith University team said future research in eastern Indonesia should turn up rock art and other evidence of human habitation that dates back at least 65,000 years – which would set yet another record.
The South Sulawesi expeditions were led by researchers from Australia’s Griffith University and Indonesia’s leading archaeological research center, Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (a.k.a. Arkenas). In addition to Brumm, Burhan and Aubert, the co-authors include Adhi Agus Oktaviana, Budianto Hakim, Rustan Lebe, Jian-xin Zhao, Priyatno Hadi Sulistyarto, Marlon Ririmasse, Shinatria Adhityatama and Iwan Sumantri.