Archaeologists have discovered the world’s oldest known cave painting: a life-size image of a wild boar made at least 45,500 years ago in Indonesia.
The results described in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday provide the earliest evidence of human settlement in the region.
Co-author Maxime Aubert from Australia’s Griffith University told AFP that it was found on the island of Sulawesi in 2017 by doctoral student Basran Burhan, as part of investigations the team conducted with Indonesian authorities.
Leang Tedongnge Cave is located in a remote valley surrounded by clean limestone cliffs, about an hour’s walk from the nearest road.
It is only available during the dry season due to floods during the wet season – and members of the isolated Bugis community told the team that it had never been seen before by Westerners.
Sulawesis varta pig, measuring 136 x 54 centimeters (53 x 21 inches), was painted with dark red ocher pigment and has a short top of upright hair and a pair of horn-like facial grooves that are characteristic of adult males of the species.
There are two handprints above the pig’s hindquarters, and it appears to be facing two other pigs that are only partially preserved, as part of a narrative scene.
“The pig seems to observe a struggle or social interaction between two other spring pigs,” says co-author Adam Brumm.
Humans have hunted Sulawesi’s spring pigs for tens of thousands of years, and they are an important part of the region’s prehistoric artwork, especially during the ice age.
Early human migration
Aubert, a dating specialist, identified a calcium deposit that had formed on top of the painting and then used isotope dating of the Uranium series to say with certainty that the deposit was 45,500 years old.
This makes the painting at least that age, “but it can be much older because the dating we use only dates the calcite on top of it,” he explained.
“The people who did it were completely modern, they were just like us, they had all the capacity and tools to make all the paintings they liked,” he added.
The former oldest dated rock art painting was found by the same team in Sulawesi. It depicted a group of human beings, partly animal figures, who hunted mammals and were found to be at least 43,900 years old.
Cave paintings like these also help fill in gaps about our understanding of early human migrations.
It is known that humans reached Australia 65,000 years ago, but they would probably have to cross the Indonesian islands, known as “Wallacea”.
This site now represents the oldest evidence of humans in Wallacea, but it is hoped that further research will show that humans were in the region much earlier, which would solve Australia’s settlement puzzle.
The team believes that the artwork was made by Homo sapiens, as opposed to now extinct human species such as Denisovans, but can not say this with certainty.
To make handprints, the artists would need to lay their hands on a surface and then spit pigment over it, and the team hopes to try to extract DNA samples from the remaining saliva.