The world’s oldest known figurative artwork has been discovered in a cave in Indonesia — an endearing image of a warty pig.
Archaeologists working on the site on the island of Sulawesi said the cave art was at least 45,500 years old. It is also thought to be the oldest surviving image of an animal. Painted using red ocher pigment, the animal appears to be observing a fight or social interaction between two other warty pigs.
Painted using red ocher, the scene shows a warty pig watching other warty pigs fight or otherwise interact. Credit: Basran Burhan
Previously, the oldest known cave art was thought to have first appeared in Europe 40,000 years ago, showcasing abstract symbols. By 35,000 years ago, the art became more sophisticated, showing horses and other animals.
These latest finds in Indonesia have challenged a long-standing belief that artistic expression — and the cognitive leap that may have accompanied it — began in Europe. The cave paintings in Indonesia are shedding new light on the early story of humanity.
Study coauthor Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and associate professor at Griffith University in Australia who specializes in the dating of rock art, said that view was “Eurocentric.”
It’s now thought that the capability to create figurative art — that references the real world — either emerged before Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa and headed for Europe and Asia more than 60,000 years ago or that it emerged more than once as humans spread around the globe.
Dating cave art
One reason for that could be because it’s particularly difficult to date cave art, Aubert explained. However, rock art made in limestone caves can sometimes be dated by measuring the radioactive decay of elements like uranium within the calcium carbonate deposits — sometime called cave popcorn — that form naturally on the cave surface.
This was the case at the Leang Tedongnge site in southern Sulawesi, where a small cave popcorn had formed on the rear foot of the pig figure after it had been painted. The date indicates the scene had been painted prior to 45,500 years ago, Aubert said, and the cave art could be much older.
A second Sulawesi warty pig image, from another cave in the region, was dated to at least 32,000 years ago using the same method in the study that published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.
A second depiction of a warty pig in another cave was dated to at least 32,000 years ago. Credit: AA Oktaviana
The team expects future research in eastern Indonesia will lead to the discovery of much older rock art and other archaeological evidence, dating back at least 65,000 years.
“We have found and documented many rock art images in Sulawesi that still await scientific dating. We expect the early rock art of this island to yield even more significant discoveries,” said study coauthor and Indonesian rock art expert Adhi Agus Oktaviana, a doctoral student at Griffith University.
Steep limestone cliffs enclose the limestone cave where the painting was found. The cave is only accessible by a narrow passage in the dry season. Credit: AA Oktaviana
The researchers were confident the image was of a warty pig, which is shown in profile and filled in with irregular patterns of painted lines and dashes, because of the presence of spiky head crests and facial warts — the two conspicuous, hornlike protusions in the upper snout area.
The pig painted on the ceiling of the cave measures 187 centimeters (6 feet) in length and 110 centimeters (3.6 feet) in height and is a red or mulberry color — the prehistoric artists used iron-rich rock as a pigment and could have used two colors. The researchers said there are three other pigs in the scene.
The researchers were confident the image was of a warty pig because of the two conspicuous, hornlike protusions in the upper snout area. Credit: AA Oktaviana
Warty pigs are still common in Indonesia and have since been domesticated.
Not much is known about the people who made the art, Aubert said.
Research has indicated that Homo sapiens arrived in Southeast Asia between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago. While the researchers said they are unable to definitively conclude that the artwork is the handiwork of cognitively modern humans, that was the most likely explanation.
“Our species must have crossed through Wallacea by watercraft in order to reach Australia by at least 65,000 years ago,” said Aubert, referring to the region between continental Asia and Australia.
“However, the Wallacean islands are poorly explored, and presently the earliest excavated archaeological evidence from this region is much younger in age.”
“This discovery underlines the remarkable antiquity of Indonesia’s rock art and its great significance for understanding the deep-time history of art and its role in humanity’s early story,” said study coauthor Adam Brumm, a professor at Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution.