Figurative Cave Art at Least 43,900 Years Old

(p. A15) In December 2017, Hamrullah, an archaeologist on an Indonesian government survey, was exploring a cave system in Sulawesi, a large island in central Indonesia. He noticed a tantalizing opening in the ceiling above him. A skilled spelunker, Hamrullah (who only uses one name, like many Indonesians) climbed through the gap into an uncharted chamber. There, he laid eyes on a painting that is upending our understanding of prehistoric humans.

The dramatic panel of art, dating back at least 43,900 years, is “the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world,” a group of scientists said in a paper published Wednesday [Dec. 11, 2019] in Nature, although additional research will be needed to confirm the age of every character in the painting.

In the story told in the scene, eight figures approach wild pigs and anoas (dwarf buffaloes native to Sulawesi). For whoever painted these figures, they represented much more than ordinary human hunters. One appears to have a large beak while another has an appendage resembling a tail. In the language of archaeology, these are therianthropes, or characters that embody a mix of human and animal characteristics.

. . .

“This finding is very significant because it was previously thought that figurative painting dated to a time shortly after modern humans arrived in Europe, perhaps circa 40,000 years ago, but this result shows it has an origin outside Europe,” said Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in England, who was not involved in the study.

For the full story, see:

Becky Ferreira. “Cave May Possess World’s ‘Earliest Figurative’ Art.” The New York Times (Thursday, December 12, 2019): A15.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 11, 2019, and has the title “Mythical Beings May Be Earliest Imaginative Cave Art by Humans.”)

The academic paper in Nature, mentioned above, is:

Aubert, Maxime, Rustan Lebe, Adhi Agus Oktaviana, Muhammad Tang, Basran Burhan, Hamrullah, Andi Jusdi, Abdullah, Budianto Hakim, Jian-xin Zhao, I. Made Geria, Priyatno Hadi Sulistyarto, Ratno Sardi, and Adam Brumm. “Earliest Hunting Scene in Prehistoric Art.” Nature (Dec. 11, 2019), DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1806-y.

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