Researchers in Indonesia have discovered ancient cave paintings that are believed to be the oldest rock art ever found. The drawings were discovered in 2017 in the limestone cave of Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 located in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
In an interview with Live Science, Adam Brumm, who is an archaeologist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, as well as a co-author of the study (which can be read in full here), explained that Pak Hamrullah (who is another co-author of the study) saw “what appeared to be the entrance to a cave located high up in a limestone cliff face, and he climbed several meters up a fig tree vine to investigate it.”
Once inside of the cave, researchers noticed cave paintings that depicted half-animal, half-human beings that were hunting wild pigs and dwarf buffaloes. To be more precise, dark red pigment was used on the 14.75-foot-long painting to draw at least eight small human/animal figures hunting six animals (2 Sulawesi warty pigs and 4 dwarf buffalo called anoas) with spears and ropes.
“Anoas are small in size, but they are reportedly very fierce, especially when cornered,” Brumm explained, adding, “From what I have heard from local people, these elusive dwarf bovids have been known to seriously gore and even kill unwary hunters on the island. Indeed, the reputation of anoas is such that the Indonesian army even named their armored personnel carrier, the Anoa, after these creatures.”
As for the hunters that were depicted in the paintings, it could be the oldest evidence ever found of ancient humans imagining supernatural beings. The hunters were drawn with muzzles, snouts and beaks of birds, reptiles and other animals, as well as tails. The half-human, half-animal creatures are called therianthropes which have been referred to as spirits, ancestral beings, and gods from several different religions.
Brumm explained this better by stating, “In Europe, scholars have long been interested in the oldest known images of therianthropes in prehistoric art, because they are generally accepted to represent the earliest evidence for our ability to conceive of abstract entities that do not exist in the natural world,” adding, “Depictions of therianthropes are also seen as an indication of early spirituality or religious-like thinking.”
Prior to this discovery, the oldest example of a therianthrope was a carved figurine of a human with a feline head that was found in Germany and dates back to approximately 40,000 years ago. This new discovery of the cave art in Indonesia is said to be from nearly 44,000 years ago. It’s also the earliest known depiction of storytelling as well as of a hunting scene.
Researchers analyzed the uranium levels as well as other radioactive isotopes in mineral growths called “cave popcorn” in order to find out exactly how old the cave art was and they were able to determine that it was created at least 43,900 years ago. Pictures of the art work can be seen here.
“Our dating work shows that this is the world’s oldest dated figurative artwork, an image that resembles the subject matter it is intended to represent,” Brumm said. Until now, the oldest known dated example of figurative art was a red disk from the rock art site of El Castillo in Spain, which is about 40,800 years old.