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Panorama of hunting scene (Credit: Adam Brumm, Ratno Sardi, and Adhi Agus Oktaviana)

For years, it has been generally been believed that the oldest cave paintings could be found in Europe. But on Wednesday, December 11, a new study published in Nature announced that there were older cave paintings in Indonesia, where locals had assumed the paintings could not have been as old as the ones in France, which date back some 37,000 years. After a recent expedition and more thorough study, scientists have announced that the 16-foot cave painting on the island of Sulawesi could be 44,000 years old.

Sulawesi hunting scene (Credit: Ratno Sardi)

Archaeologists Adam Brumm, Maxime Aubert and Adhi Agus Oktaviana made the discovery back in 2017 when they were looking for more art in the cave. Only when did they uranium test the expansive work did they discover it was over 40,000 years old. The stick figures in the painting would be familiar to us who have seen photos of cave paintings in textbooks or history classes. The scene depicts a hunting scene: stick figures representing early man attacking boar and buffaloes. One remarkable finding was that the researchers noticed some mythological animal-like additions to some of the humanoid stick figures, possibly a nod to an early religion or an artistic flourish that signals the beginning of imaginative storytelling different than documenting scenes of daily life.

Therianthrope 1 figure (human figure with tail) (Credit: Ratno Sardi)

Some researchers believe that the practice of visually documenting early man’s experiences can be traced back to our shared origins in Africa. One optimistic expert told NPR, she thinks there are older paintings out there to be discovered. “We think of the ability for humans to make a story, a narrative scene, as one of the last steps of human cognition,” Aubert told Science. “This is the oldest rock art in the world and all of the key aspects of modern cognition are there.”

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Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a writer and critic based in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Village Voice, RogerEbert.com, Remezcla, the Guardian,...

2 replies on “Indonesian Cave Painting Could Be Oldest Ever Discovered”

  1. Have they decided which early man made the paintings ? Denisovians ?
    Stick figures similar to E. Africa & Sierra da Capirava in Brazil.

  2. I think that human representation is rare in European cave art but animal +human does appear. Note that animals are fleshed out in two dimensions but man is only a stick figure.

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