World’s oldest artwork discovered in Indonesian cave

The painting was dated using a new technique and suggests Europe was not where cave art first emerged.

The cave painting found in Sulawesi. It is dominated by a large red pig. There appear to be three people around.
The painting found in the Sulawesi cave is dominated by a large red pig [Griffith University via AFP]

Scientists have discovered what they believe to be the world’s oldest artwork – depicting three people gathered around a large red pig – in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Research published on Wednesday indicates the painting was created some 51,200 years ago.

“This is the oldest evidence of storytelling,” Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Australia’s Griffith University and co-author of a new study published in Nature, told the AFP news agency.

Aubert was part of the team that identified the previous record holder, a picture of a warty pig thought to be at least 45,500 years old.

The latest discovery, found inside the Leang Karampuang cave in the Maros-Pangkep region of South Sulawesi, is in poor condition.

It shows three people around a wild pig, measuring 92cm by 38cm (36 inches by 15 inches), in a single shade of dark red pigment. There are other images of pigs in the cave as well.

“The juxtaposition of the figures – how they are positioned in relation to each other – and the manner in which they are interacting – were clearly deliberate, and it conveys an unmistakable sense of action. There is something happening between these figures. A story is being told. Obviously, we don’t know what that story was,” said Griffith University archaeologist Adam Brumm, another of the study’s authors.

Aubert speculated that the paintings were probably made by the first group of humans who moved through Southeast Asia before arriving in Australia about 65,000 years ago.

“It’s probably just a matter of time before we find samples that are older,” Aubert added.

Previously, the first narrative art was thought to have emerged in Europe.

The date given for the Indonesian cave art is “quite provocative” because it is so much older than what has been found elsewhere, including in Europe, said Chris Stringer, an anthropologist at London’s Natural History Museum.

Stringer, who was not involved in the research, said the experienced team’s findings looked sound but needed to be confirmed by further dating.

“In my view, this find reinforces the idea that representational art was first produced in Africa, before 50,000 years ago, and the concept spread as our species spread,” he told AFP.

“If that is true, much new supporting evidence from other areas including Africa has yet to emerge.”

The researchers used a new scientific approach to determine the minimum age of the Leang Karampuang cave painting by using a laser to date a type of crystal called calcium carbonate that formed naturally on top of the painting.

Little is known about the people who created the Sulawesi cave paintings.

“This discovery of very old cave art in Indonesia drives home the point that Europe was not the birthplace of cave art, as had long been assumed. It also suggests that storytelling was a much older part of human history, and the history of art, in particular, than previously recognized,” Brumm said.

“The earliest Sulawesi rock art is not ‘simple’,” Aubert added. “It is quite advanced and shows the mental capacity of people at the time.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies