Some 44,000 years ago, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, someone crouched in a cave, crushed a chunk of ironstone hematite into a pigment, and proceeded to paint a rich scene onto the limestone walls, full of wild boar, buffalo, and their half-human, half-animal hunters.
As researchers from Griffith University confirmed in a paper published this month in Nature, it is the oldest painting ever found. “This new cave painting we have dated in Sulawesi is the earliest known rock art made by our species and apparently the earliest representational picture or figurative imagery in prehistoric art,” says Adam Brumm, the associate professor at Griffith University who led the study, over email.
Brumm’s team had been exploring caves in the area, which are known to contain paintings, albeit none this old. A keen eye spotted a hole in the cavern they were exploring—like a scene out of an Indiana Jones film—which led to the discovery of the area where the painting was found.
“One of our Indonesian team members (Pak Hamrullah) noticed a small hole in the ceiling of the cave and climbed several meters up a fig tree vine to investigate it,” Brumm recounts. “He crawled into the hole and discovered that it was actually the opening to a small, previously hidden chamber higher up in the limestone cliff face and this is where he found the cave art panel.”
The work itself demonstrates both intention and sophistication. More than a mere image, it actually tells a story of a hunt, featuring animals and animal-human hybrids. The fact that it features these bird- and reptile-headed people, known as therianthropes, implies the painting was produced by a civilization that had embraced spirituality—or perhaps even a formal mythology.
“To me this image is a testimony to the power of human imagination and creativity and in particular to the importance of storytelling in the human journey—not just telling stories about what happened last week, but dreaming up fantastical, amazing tales —works of fiction—that help us make sense of the world and that bind human communities together,” he says. “It has been said before that we are a storytelling species—I think this ancient Indonesian cave painting shows that very clearly.”
Objectively, all its details add up to a highly sophisticated visual and narrative work. The next level of complexity would be a written language system (and Cuneiform wouldn’t appear for 35,000 more years).
The painting is done in a striking style, and Brumm is inclined to agree—though with the balanced objectivity of a scientist. “I can only describe the ‘aesthetics’ from a modern Western sense and a perspective that is deeply personal to me; the image is ‘beautiful’ to me because I know how old it is, but I have no idea if the ‘beauty’ of the art was something that was important to the people who created it over 44,000 years ago,” he says. “It might have been the story behind the scene that was what they were really interested in.”
If this is the oldest piece of human art, how is it possibly so complex? Where are the precursors and contemporary works that must exist? Where are the sketches and experiments? Where are the one-off attempts to paint a buffalo, or a human, before putting them all together in one scene?
“I think they are out there and we will find them one day,” says Brumm. “We just need to keep looking.”