In a hidden valley on an Indonesian island is a cave adorned with perhaps the oldest figurative art ever seen by modern eyes.
The vivid depiction of a wild boar, outlined and filled with mulberry pigment, goes back at least 45,500 years, according to a study published Wednesday in Science Advances. It was discovered deep in a cave called Leang Tedongnge in December 2017 during an archaeological study led by Basran Burhan, a graduate student at Griffith University and co-author of the new research. The animal in the painting resembles the warthog, a species that still lives on the Sulawesi island where the cave is located.
Sulawesi has already been viewed by some experts as the site of the earliest known figurative cave art in the world. A fascinating scene elsewhere on the island showing human-animal hybrids was at least 43,900 years old, the same team reported in a 2019 study.
These examples of cave art, as well as another pig figure discovered by Adhi Agus Oktavhiana, a graduate student at Griffith University and co-author of the study, in a cave further south, point to the rich cultures of the Indonesian islands. The discoveries also open a debate as to whether the artists could have been Homo sapiens or members of another extinct human species.
The Leang Tedongnge site is only about 60 km from Makassar, a busy city with a population of about 1.5 million. But the cave has remained practically untouched because it is so difficult to get to.
“Getting there requires a difficult hike on a bumpy forest path that winds through mountainous terrain and ends in a narrow cave passage that is the only access to the valley,” said Adam Brumm, also an archaeologist at Griffith University and Co -Staff author of the study. “The valley is only accessible during the dry season. During the rainy season, the valley floor is completely flooded and residents have to drive around in dugout canoes. “
Dr. Brumm accused local scientists and others of making the discovery at the cave possible.
After the team discovered the pig painting, it determined the minimum age of 45,500 years using uranium rows. However, it is possible that the painting itself is thousands of years older, as the technique only assesses the age of a mineral deposit, speleothem, that has formed on the cave walls.
The question of who took the pictures is still a mystery.
Human skeletal remains at 45,500 years of age have never been found in Sulawesi, so it is not clear that the artists were anatomically modern humans. The islands that are now called Indonesia have been inhabited for long periods of time by various hominins – the broader family that humans belong to. Some of these hominin remains are “over a million years old,” said Rasmi Shoocongdej, an archaeologist at Silpakorn University in Thailand who was not involved in the study.
Dr. Brumm and his colleagues assume that the painters were modern people “given the sophistication of this early representational work of art”. In addition, the ancient paintings share features with prehistoric art created by people around the world, including the presence of handprints and the use of the “twisted perspective” in which animals are painted in both profile and frontal views.
Dr. Brumm believes it is only a matter of time before human remains from this age are found in archaeological digs in the area.
João Zilhão, an archaeologist at the University of Barcelona who was not involved in the study, disagrees with the team’s assumption that modern people created the images. As a co-author of a 2018 study suggesting that Neanderthals left non-configurational art on the walls of Spanish caves, he believes that another extinct human species may have created the images.
“An anatomically modern human is an anatomical definition,” he said. “It has nothing to do with knowledge, intelligence or behavior.”
Dr. Zilhão added, “There is no evidence of the anatomy of the people who made this stuff.”
While it is easy to focus on the claim that these are the oldest prehistoric images found by humans to date, Margaret Conkey, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, said that she had the “much broader implications” of the Discovery overshadowed.
What stood out from her point of view about the study was her “important contribution to understanding how people in prehistoric Sulawesi can stay connected” and “how they create social worlds through material and visual manifestations”.
While the new study uses the term “oldest”, Dr. Brumm and his colleagues that they can find pictures of even older age in Sulawesi.
“We believe there is much older rock carvings and other evidence of human habitation in Sulawesi and other islands in the East Indonesian part, the Wallacean Archipelago, the gateway to the Australian continent,” said Dr. Hum.
Unfortunately, time is of the essence: Indonesia’s cave art is rapidly deteriorating, raising the sad prospect that many of the world’s oldest paintings may fade before they are rediscovered.
“We have documented this phenomenon in almost all rock art in the area, and monitoring by our colleagues at the local cultural heritage agency suggests that the peeling of the art is happening at an alarming rate,” said Dr. Hum. “It is very worrying, and given the current situation, the end result is likely to be the destruction of this Indonesian Ice Age art, perhaps even during its lifetime.”