Scientists at Griffith University have discovered the world’s oldest known rock painting on a limestone wall on the island of South Sulawesi in Indonesia.
Dating back 45,500 years, the painting is of a Sulawesi warty pig, a species hunted and often depicted in Sulawesi rock art from the last ice age.
The discovery definitely knocks out Europe and establishes that the Indo-Pacific is the center of the earliest known developments in artistic expression and perhaps even storytelling.
“The cave is in a valley that is surrounded by steep limestone cliffs and can only be accessed through a narrow cave passage in the dry season, as the valley floor is completely flooded with moisture,” said the Professor Adam Brumm, co-leader of the expedition which consisted of researchers from Indonesia’s highest archeology center (ARKENA) and the Griffith Human Evolution Research Center.
“The isolated Bugis community that lives in this hidden valley claim they have never been visited by Westerners before.”
Measuring 53 inches by 21 inches (136 cm by 54 cm), the pig is accompanied by two human handprints just above its hindquarters, and a pair of pigs on the right that are only partially visible.
“The pig appears to be observing a fight or social interaction between two other warty pigs,” Brumm said.
Turning back the clock
The team’s co-leader, Professor Maxime Aubert of the Griffith Center for Social and Cultural Research, tested the art of uranium series dating. Aubert is an expert in figuring out the age of objects, but he noted in a press release that rock art is difficult to date correctly.
“Rock art is a great challenge to date,” said Professor Aubert. “However, rock art produced in limestone caves can sometimes be dated using uranium series analysis of calcium carbonate deposits (‘cave popcorn’) that form naturally on the surface of the rock wall. the cave used as a ‘canvas’ for art. “
“… A small cave popcorn had formed on the hind leg of one of the pig figures after it had been painted, so when it was dated, it gave us a minimum age for painting.”
Subsequent analysis of the popcorn yielded the figure 45,500 ago, suggesting that it may have been painted at an earlier date.
Certainly finding their stronghold, the same Brumm and Aubert research team had dated other paintings of warty pigs nearby, including one last year which was recognized as one of the Top 10 Discoveries of 2020 by Science magazine.
That discovery dates back at least 44,000 years and contained images of human-beast hybrids, or ‘therianthropes’ hunting warty Sulawesi pigs together – images the team believed at the time represented a series of ‘firsts’.
“It represents the first evidence of storytelling of our species,” said Professor Brumm, according to Griffith Press. “The figurative representation of hunters as therianthropes may also be the oldest evidence of our ability to imagine the existence of supernatural beings, a cornerstone of religious experience.”
“We have found and documented many images of rock art in Sulawesi that are still awaiting scientific dating. We hope that the early rock art on this island will produce even more significant discoveries, ”said study co-author and ARKENAS rock art expert Adhi Agus Oktaviana.
Somewhere beyond the sea
Since the island of Sulawesi is home to the oldest rock art discovered on Earth, science may begin to color more precise hypotheses about the migration of humans across the vast strip of islands we call Oceania, but 45,000 years ago it is described as ‘Wallacea’.
“Our species must have crossed Wallacea by boat to reach Australia at least 65,000 years ago,” Professor Aubert said in the press release. “However, the Wallacean Islands are poorly explored and currently the oldest excavated archaeological evidence from this region is much younger.”
One such evidence would be the megalithic site of Gunung Padang in Java, in which controversial carbon dating suggests the construction of a complex similar in nature to Stonehenge that began during 20,000 BC. C., almost 14,000 years before the site in English.
Collectively, the Sulawesi rock art sites represent not only the oldest known rock art works, but also a rather sophisticated use of human imagination; something that would certainly be necessary to organize groups of hunter-gatherers in search of large construction projects.
“This discovery underscores the remarkable antiquity of Indonesian rock art and its great importance in understanding the deep history of the art and its role in the early history of mankind,” said Professor Brumm.
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