About 44,000 years ago, an artist climbed into a cave ledge with a hand paint brush on an island in Indonesia. Perhaps inspired by spiritual visions, the artist drew a dynamic scene that included small, animal-headed hunters, equipped with spears that corner scary wild pigs and small buffaloes. In a new study, researchers show that the visionary storytelling, which the scene claims to represent the oldest known figurative art made by modern humans, is similar to ourselves at the time of the cave painting, and probably much earlier.
“We consider people’s ability to make a story, a narrative scene as one of the last steps in human cognition,” says Maxime Aubert, lead author of Nathan’s archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia. “This is the oldest rock art in the world and all the important aspects of modern cognition are there.”
Aubert and his colleagues have been exploring dozens of caves on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia for the past 5 years, and have created hundreds of patterns, cave paintings, red pigment crayons and carved figurines. Archaeological data show that artists arrived early 50,000 years ago with a wave of modern people. (The modern Sulawesians come from successive waves of the Australian population, which began much later than 3,500 to 4,000 years ago.)
In 2017, an Indonesian archaeologist and cave co-author Pak Hamrullah noticed a small opening in the ceiling of a previously discovered limestone cave. While mixing fig tree vines, he found his way to a small cave. The far wall was carrying a panel painted in red ocher pigment. Aubert was astonished when he saw her.
“I thought, ‘Wow, like a whole scene,’ I thought. “You have people or maybe half human half animals, hunting or catching these animals … this was great.”
The hunted animals look like Sulawesi wart pigs and a small horned cattle, both called anoa or dwarf buffalo, both still living on the island. However, it was the animated features of the eight hunters, enchanting Aubert, armed with spears or ropes. Some seem to have long puzzles or noses. One seems to have a tail, and the other’s mouth looks like a bird’s beak.
Features can depict masks or other camouflage, but researchers argue that dressing like small animals would be a bad disguise for hunters. Most likely, the numbers represent legendary animal-human hybrids, says Aubert. These hybrids are found in various examples of early works of art, including a 35,000-year-old ivory figurine of a lion man in the German Alps.
To date with the Sulawesi cave painting, Aubert has carefully removed several centimeters wide pieces from the painted cave wall – avoiding numbers and trying to deal as little damage as possible – and brought the pieces back to their laboratory. Over the years, as rainwater flowed through the porous limestone of the cave and went down its walls, the cave left small mineral deposits called popcorn on the cave. Popcorn holds trace amounts of uranium, which decays at a constant rate over time. By analyzing the ratio of uranium to thorium directly in the mineral layer above the pigment, the researchers calculated the minimum age of the picture: 44,000 years old, this week they report in Nature.
It will make this cave scene at least 4000 years larger than other examples of figurative ancient rock art found in Indonesia and Europe, and about 20,000 years older than the oldest depictions of hunting scenes in Europe. In 2018, scientists extracted some disc and abstract design examples from the caves in Spain up to 65,000 years ago, but these were attributed to Neanderthals, and some scientists challenged the meeting.
Aubert says that the ability to imagine non-existent is a critical cognitive turning point and forms the roots of religion and spirituality. Seeing this ability fully formed in Sulawesi 44,000 years ago shows that it was probably present in early modern humans who left Africa and filled the rest of the world.
Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist who is not involved in the study at the University of Tübingen in Germany, says the scenario makes sense, given that every modern human society has its own creative and legendary traditions. “These depictions highlight the great ancient period of narratives and storytelling,” he says. “It is encouraging to find concrete evidence for narrative depictions at this early date.”
The findings should also help eliminate outdated and false thinking, by adding April Nowell, an archaeologist at the University of Victoria in Canada, for the first time that humanity has become completely modern in Europe. “We know that this view is now untenable, and the wealth of [this and other recent findings]… continues to emphasize the importance of the record outside Europe.”