This cave painting could be the oldest artwork of its kind

Cheryl Sanders
December 13, 2019

The painting has galvanised archaeologists to continue mapping the vast, unexplored reaches of the Maros-Pangkep caves, where the art is fading, "at an alarming rate" for unknown reasons, Aubert said. And after testing it, they say it's the oldest known figurative art attributed to early modern humans.

Prof Aubert said: "The cave painting from Leang Bulu' Sipong 4 suggests that there was no gradual evolution of Palaeolithic art from simple to complex around 35,000 years ago - at least not in Southeast Asia".

Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia and one of the study's authors, said his team was "completely blown away" by the painting. And after testing, they say it is the oldest known figurative art that is attributed to early modern man.

Dating back almost 44,000 years, the Paleolithic artwork proves that prehistoric humans might have been more creatively inclined than once thought, researchers say.

According to the researchers, both the human-like figures and animals were painted at the same time, in the same artistic style, using the same technique and dark red pigment.


Image 3 of 5This therianthrope, showing a human figure with a tail, is part of the hunting scene found in cave art in Leang Bulu' Sipong in Indonesia.

A group of therianthropic figures confronting an anoa at Leang Bulu' Sipong 4. The cave art that was found, showed that panel with a width of 4.5 metres that had six mammals on it such as two Sulawesi pigs alongside four dwarf buffaloes (found to this day in the Island's forests).

There are at least 242 caves or shelters with ancient imagery on Sulawesi alone, and new sites are being discovered annually, the team said. But therianthropes often have great religious significance.

The figurative depiction of hunters as therianthropes may also be the oldest evidence for our ability to imagine the existence of supernatural beings, a cornerstone of religious experience. Now it is confirmed that it dates back to 43,900 years and belongs to the Upper Paleolithic period. In 2017 they found something breathtaking - the huge hunting scene, which stretches over about 16 feet from a cave wall.

"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", Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in England who wasn't personally involved with the study, told the New York Times.


The prehistoric hunting scene shows possible therianthropes hunting wild pigs and dwarf buffaloes in Indonesia.

These interpretations are speculative, however, and the original inspiration for the painting, as well as its significance to the humans who created it, is likely to remain a mystery. The analysis yielded dates ranging from 35,100 to 43,900 years.

'All of the critical parts of a highly advantageous ingenious custom had been demonstrate in Sulawesi by 44,000 years within the past, in conjunction with figurative art work, scenes, and therianthropes'. These cave paintings, like their more recent counterparts, could hint at a sense of fiction or spirituality.

"Assuming that the dates are good", Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, said in an email, "This is good news, and the only surprising thing is not that analogous finds would exist elsewhere, but rather that it has been so hard to find them" until now.

The oldest known hunting scenes that were made by modern humans date back somewhere between 21,000 and 14,000 years ago and were found in Europe - including the famous drawing at The Shaft in Lascaux France.


Geographically, the study's findings aren't unique: Plenty of other cave art sites have been documented in Indonesia over the past few decades.

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