World’s oldest cave painting discovered in Indonesia
4 mins read

World’s oldest cave painting discovered in Indonesia

Deep in an Indonesian cave, a humble work of art tells a story that goes back more than 51,000 years. The remarkable painting, which depicts three human-like figures gathered around a large red pig, holds the title of the world’s oldest known narrative work ever made by human hands.

Titled “A Flaky Image of Three People Around a Big Red Pig,” the painting is a testament to the dawn of human storytelling.

Unlocking Time Through Complex Art

Scientists from the prestigious Australian Griffith University have made this remarkable discovery.

“This is the oldest evidence of narrative,” said Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at the university. He was part of the research team that previously identified a 48,000-year-old hunting scene in another Indonesian cave.

This recent discovery, however, far exceeds the previous record. “This is the first time we have crossed the 50,000-year barrier,” noted Mr. Aubert.

The study offers an interesting insight into human cognitive evolution, suggesting a very sophisticated level of storytelling ability in early humans.

“Our discovery suggests that storytelling is a much older part of human history than previously thought,” said archaeologist and co-author Adam Brumm.

Pushing the boundaries with laser dating

The dating of this ancient artwork was done using a cutting-edge laser ablation technique, which involved using lasers and computer software to create a “map” of rock samples.

This innovative method proved to be more accurate, more efficient and more affordable than the traditional uranium series method. It also required significantly smaller rock samples.

The archaeological team validated this technique on the previously discovered hunting scene. Experts determined that the painting was at least 48,000 years old, contradicting the initial estimate of 44,000 years.

The new laser method was then used to date the rock painting on the island of Sulawesi, yielding a staggering age estimate of 51,200 years.

Pig Imagery in Cave Painting

One of the fascinating aspects of ancient Indonesian art is the depiction of a large red pig, a motif that holds cultural and symbolic significance.

Pigs were not only subjects of artistic representation, but were an integral part of the subsistence and rituals of early human communities.

The choice of a pig in the work could indicate its importance in the diet or spiritual practices of the people who created it.

Understanding why early humans chose specific animals for their stories can provide deeper insights into their daily lives, beliefs, and interactions with their environment.

The first human migrations

This revolutionary discovery also has implications for our understanding of early human migration patterns.

The presence of such sophisticated artwork in Indonesia suggests that the first humans who migrated out of Africa were not only adept at survival, but also carried with them a rich tradition of storytelling and artistic expression.

This approach challenges the idea that complex cognitive abilities and cultural practices developed only in Europe or the Middle East. Instead, it highlights a more diverse and widespread emergence of human creativity in different regions.

Future research in other parts of the world may reveal more pieces of this complex puzzle, further expanding our understanding of humanity’s common heritage.

The age-old mystery of cave paintings

The origins of human evolution date back more than 300,000 years in Africa. The earliest known images created by our ancestors are simple lines and patterns in ochre discovered in South Africa, dating back 100,000 years.

A “huge gap” separates this evidence from the 50,000-year-old Indonesian cave paintings. Why such a gap? Why isn’t art ubiquitous throughout the timeline of human evolution?

While some suggest that older artworks simply haven’t survived the test of time, others believe that artifacts from the missing time window are still out there, patiently waiting to be discovered.

Until now, it was thought that narrative art appeared in Europe. But Indonesian rock art, much older than what has been discovered elsewhere, including in Europe, pushes us to re-evaluate these beliefs.

These revelations are a telling testament to human creativity and ingenuity, reminding us that pieces of our collective past may still be out there, etched into cave walls or buried beneath layers of history, eagerly awaiting our unraveling of their ancient mysteries.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

Photo credit: Griffith University/AFP

Video credit: Southern Cross University

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