Archaeologists in Indonesia have stumbled upon an extraordinarily old cave painting which appears to depict human-like figures in pursuit of wild pigs and buffaloes. It’s quite possibly the oldest portrayal of a hunting scene in the archaeological record, but the vague nature of the artwork leaves it open to interpretation.
New research published today in Nature describes the discovery of an approximately 43,900-year-old cave painting found at the Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 site in South Sulawesi, Indonesia.
The lead authors of the new study, archaeologists Adam Brumm and Maxime Aubert from Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, say it’s a hunting scene, making it the oldest on record—assuming their interpretation is correct. One of the experts we spoke to said the painting, which depicts a series of human-like figures around several animals, may represent something else entirely.
Regardless of what exactly it depicts, this piece is significant due to its extreme age, the sophistication of the artwork, and its geographical location. Assuming the dating was done correctly, it’s now the oldest known figurative art drawn by early modern humans.
“This is a very important paper,” said Chris Stringer, a physical anthropologist from the Natural History Museum in London who wasn’t involved with the new research, in an email to Gizmodo.
First, some important context before we dive into the details.
Older cave art dating to around 64,000 years ago has been discovered in Europe, but those drawings, featuring animals, dots, geometric signs, and hand stencils, were almost certainly produced by Neanderthals. An older, non-figurative art piece attributed to our species was recently unearthed in South Africa in the form of a 73,000-year-old cross-hatched pattern drawn onto a smooth rock.
And in 2014, the same Griffith University researchers from the new study found the oldest known cave paintings produced by early modern humans—a series of hand stencils dating back some 40,000 years, also in Sulawesi.
As for cave paintings depicting hunting scenes, in which both humans and animals are unambiguously shown together, that’s surprisingly rare. Prior to the new discovery, the oldest known hunting scenes belonged to Upper Paleolithic European cultures, sometimes referred to as Magdalenian cultures, dating to around 21,000 to 14,000 years ago, including the famous drawing found at The Shaft in Lascaux France, which depicts a wounded bison charging a bird-headed humanoid.
These artworks inspired the idea that Magdalenian cultures kickstarted these sorts of figurative, or representational, drawings, to which all subsequent cave artists owe their inspiration. The new discovery at Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 effectively overturns this Eurocentric assumption.
Found in 2017, the 43,900-year-old cave painting appears to be a single composition that measures around 4 metres wide. The painting isn’t perfectly legible due to bright splotches that formed over it, but much of the scene is still visible. The artist, or artists, appears to be depicting tiny human-like figures who are brandishing spears and/or ropes as they pursue buffaloes and pigs.
Fascinatingly, the figures were drawn as human-animal hybrids—an abstraction or impression known as therianthropes. While rare, anthropologists and archaeologists have seen this sort of representation before.
“Previously, the earliest relatively unambiguous image of a therianthrope known to archaeology was the so-named ‘Lion-man’ figurine from Germany, a sculpture of a part-human, part-cave lion being carved out of mammoth tusk,” Brumm told Gizmodo in an email.
“This was found in 1939 in cave deposits believed to around 40,000 years old. The meaning of this image has been extensively debated for decades; some think it represents a trancing shaman transforming into a lion, others think it is an image of a spirit or god or some sort of supernatural creature, and others think it just depicts a guy wearing an animal skin.”
Clearly, therianthropes are evidence of highly developed thinking. In this case, the figures, with body parts borrowed from lizards and birds, were used to convey a story or possibly some kind of spiritual meaning. Consequently, this might be the oldest known depiction of spiritual or mythical beings, highlighting the existential or metaphysical sophistication of this early culture.
“These images represent some of the oldest storytelling anywhere in the world and contain elements that have never been seen together—a hunting scene depicting hunting strategies combined with the use of therianthropes,” Kira Westaway, an associate professor from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Macquarie University in Australia, told Gizmodo.
“This is not just a simple representation of themselves, such as a hand stencil, but a complex representation of their existence and potentially their beliefs—to find this at this early age is astonishing,” said Westaway, who wasn’t involved with the new research.
As noted, much of the painting is covered in splotches, which turned out to be as much of a blessing as it was a curse.
“These features are small, hard, popcorn-like nodular growths comprised of calcium carbonate materials that form naturally on the limestone cave walls and ceilings over very long periods of time and sometimes, fortunately, as in this case, over the prehistoric paintings,” said Brumm. “I say fortunately because in some instances it is possible to date when these mineral deposits formed using the uranium-series method, which essentially measures the radioactive decay of elements within the calcium carbonate.”
So the popcorn-like growths, which formed well after the drawing was made, were used to date the piece, which means the painting could be older—perhaps considerably older—than the date given of 43,900 years ago. The earliest fossil evidence of Homo sapiens in this part of the world dates to around 70,000 years ago in Sumatra, but evidence of archaic humans, namely Homo erectus, living in Indonesia date back to—get this—around 1.5 million years ago in Java.
Intriguingly, Denisovans, a sister group to the Neanderthals, were still around when this cave painting was made, and fossil and genetic evidence suggests they made it into southeast Asia and Melanesia. We asked Dr. Stringer if this art could’ve been produced by other humans, Denisovans included.
“Well, they might still have survived in Asia at this date, but this kind of art was certainly demonstrably created by Homo sapiens at later dates in various parts of the world, so it is most likely to be the work of our species, which is represented in the region at more than 70,000 years ago in Sumatra (Lida Ajer) and about 40,000 years ago in Borneo (Niah Cave) and Australia (Mungo),” said Stringer.
The painting was drawn with natural mineral pigments, including ochre and ironstone hematite. According to the authors, the scene depicts several therianthropes in the act of killing or subduing six animals: two Sulawesi warty pigs and four dwarf buffaloes known as anoas, both of which were common to Sulawesi at the time.
“Although these animals were depicted in outline profile with irregular patterns of infill the figures were executed with a relatively high degree of anatomical realism and certain [anatomical features] of these species are clearly represented, such as, in the case of Sulawesi warty pig, its distinctive head crest, and, with the anoas, their characteristic straight, dagger-like horns,” Brumm told Gizmodo.
Brumm said “we can’t ever know the real meanings of this cave painting,” but the “depiction of armed human-like figures surrounding the animals and confronting them with what seem to be ropes or spears, at least in our view, is fairly convincing evidence that this is a hunting scene of some description,” he explained, adding that it’s wholly plausible that “the presence of therianthropes possibly implies a spiritual dimension to the art” and it could represent “some kind of myth or religious story, but of course we can only guess.”
Given the extreme date and location of this cave painting, it’s exceptionally unlikely that artworks seen later in Europe had any cultural connection.
“Certainly these paintings show that any Eurocentric narrative of the development of such complex representational art must be wrong,” Stringer told Gizmodo. “In my view, comparable artistic creations in Australia will eventually be placed to this same remote period of time, and even older representational art may one day be found in Africa, preceding significant dispersals of modern humans from there, beginning around 60,000 years ago.”
Relatedly, Westaway said “religious thoughts and hunting strategies that are older than those depicted in European rock art certainly changes our perspectives on the abilities of the modern humans that travelled down through Asia en route to Australia.”
But does the cave painting actually portray a hunting scene? Paul Bahn, author of The First Artists: In Search of the World’s Oldest Art, isn’t convinced, saying the interpretation of the piece is “somewhat excessive and simplistic.” Here’s what he said to Gizmodo in an email:
The big animals are fine, and seem straightforward to our modern eyes. The ‘humanoid’ figures, on the other hand, are so tiny and badly weathered that their interpretation is by no means clear. They might be therianthropes, but this is highly uncertain. Therianthropes are extremely rare in European Ice Age art, and in fact this collection—if valid—almost outnumbers those in Europe! For example, the supposed ‘tail’ on [one of the figures pictured above] could just as easily be a backward-pointing phallus, like the one on Europe’s most famous therianthrope in Les Trois Frères cave [i.e. the aforementioned bird-headed humanoid found in France].
I agree with the authors that, if they are indeed therianthropes, then their status and their tiny size would suggest that this is not a straightforward hunting scene. It is far more likely to be a story or myth, and may not involve hunting at all—I see no clear weapons, and the lines may not even be ropes. They could be many things. One could argue that the small creatures are creating the big ones, or vice versa!
In short, there is a lot of wishful thinking in the chosen interpretation. Personally I would have rested content with presenting some very fine early art in a part of the world which has only recently come to the fore in this field. It is especially hard to judge since we do not have a single clear hunting scene in the whole of European Ice Age art!
In addition to this, Bahn said the European examples of therianthropes are equally worthy of criticism in terms of how they’ve been interpreted, and he felt the authors made a mistake by failing to mention a complex stone-bone figure known as the “Mask”—a 70,000-year-old artefact found in La Roche-Cotard, France, that was produced by Neanderthals and which is in his opinion is an early example of figurative art.
Stringer, on the other hand, said some experts might question the uranium-series dating of the wall markings, but the “method looks to have been applied carefully, and this is almost certainly the oldest dated representational art so far,” he told Gizmodo. As for the interpretation of the therianthropes and the ropes, Stringer said that was “more speculative,” but he found the authors’ interpretations to be “reasonable.”
It’s pretty amazing how a single old painting can cause so much conversation and speculation—but such is the nature of art and science. It’s a magical thing when these two disciplines converge, and it’s safe to say this cave painting will continue to spark discussions and arguments over the years to come.