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50,000-year-old picture of a pig is the oldest known narrative art


Tracing of the cave painting showing a pig and human-like figures from Leang Karampuang on Sulawesi, Indonesia

Griffith University

A painting of a pig with human-like figures in an Indonesian cave is at least 51,200 years old, making it the earliest known example of representational art in the world.

“We like to define ourselves as a species that tells stories, and this is the oldest evidence of that,” says Maxime Aubert at Griffith University in Gold Coast, Australia.

The pig artwork was discovered in 2017 on the ceiling of the limestone cave of Leang Karampuang on the island of Sulawesi.

In 2019, Aubert and his colleagues dated a hunting scene from a nearby cave named Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 to a minimum of 43,900 years old.

Now, they have used a new, more accurate technique to estimate the ages of both artworks. They found that the image at Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 is actually more than 4000 years older than previously thought – and the Leang Karampuang art is even older.

The artworks at both locations are at least 10,000 years older than the oldest European rock art, says Aubert.

Modern humans, Homo sapiens, had reached Australia by 60,000 to 65,000 years ago, so we know they were in the region at this time, says Aubert. “We assume these paintings were made by modern humans.”

In the same caves, there are depictions of creatures with both human and animal attributes, indicating spiritual beliefs.

“This rock art is not just small symbols,” says team member Renaud Joannes-Boyau at Southern Cross University in Lismore, Australia. “They were actually painting hunting and life scenes and they were already telling stories with their art, living in a spiritual world and trying to make sense of the environment around them. That tells us a lot about the evolution of Homo sapiens.”

The previous method of dating the artworks relied on the chemical extraction of samples and a large portion of the rock had to be crushed and destroyed.

In the new technique, a 5-millimetre diameter core is extracted from the crust on the rock. From the surface of this core, material that is less than half the thickness of a human hair is removed by a laser and tested to measure the decay of isotopes in the mineral. Once this is done, the core can be plugged back into the rock art, resulting in far less destruction compared with the previous method.

Karampuang Hill, location of Leang Karampuang cave

Google Arts & Culture

Joannes-Boyau says the new technique is likely to lead to major revisions of rock art history around the world.

Kira Westaway at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, says the refined dating technique has provided a more accurate assessment of when the Sulawesi art was actually painted.

“This is hugely significant, when the original age was already considered groundbreaking,” she says. “This has massive implications for our understanding of the capabilities of the early artists moving through Indonesia and the type of skills and tool kit they already possessed when entering Australia.”

Homo sapiens probably wasn’t the only species with the capacity for complex symbolic practices, says Martin Porr at the University of Western Australia. “It is very likely that other hominins at least had some capabilities in this respect as can be inferred from the highly sophisticated material culture of Neanderthals.”

“It will be important to do more work in the future on the archaeological evidence in the region to understand and confirm the social, economic and cultural contexts of the images during the late Pleistocene,” says Porr.

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