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The oldest known figurative work of art in the world has been discovered in a cave in Indonesia – an endearing image of a warty pig.
Archaeologists working at the site on the island of Sulawesi said the rock art was at least 45,500 years old.
The oldest known figurative work of art in the world has been discovered in a cave in Indonesia – an endearing image of a warty pig. (Griffith University)

It is also believed to be the oldest surviving image of an animal.

Painted with red ocher pigment, the animal appears to be observing a fight or social interaction between two other warty pigs.

This region is home to many fascinating limestone caves where other discoveries have been made.

Rock art depicting a hunting scene dating to 43,900 years ago was also found in Sulawesi in late 2019.

The same team of archaeologists found templates of human hands in 2014, dating back 40,000 years.

Previously, it was thought that the oldest known rock art first appeared in Europe 40,000 years ago, showing abstract symbols.

35,000 years ago, the art became more sophisticated, showing horses and other animals.

These latest findings in Indonesia have challenged the belief that artistic expression, and the cognitive leap that may have accompanied it, began in Europe.

The Indonesian rock paintings are shedding new light on the early history of mankind.

Study co-author Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and associate professor at Griffith University in Australia who specializes in rock art dating, said that view was “Eurocentric.”

Archaeologists working at the site on the island of Sulawesi said the rock art was at least 45,500 years old. (Griffith University)

The ability to create figurative art, which refers to the real world, is now thought to have arisen before Homo sapiens emigrated from Africa to Europe and Asia more than 60,000 years ago or that it arose more than once when humans spread throughout the world. .

While abstract art has been found in Africa Dating back 77,000 years, no figurative art older than those found at sites in Europe and Indonesia has been discovered on the African continent, Dr. Aubert said.

One reason for that could be because rock art is particularly difficult to date, Dr. Aubert explained.

However, rock art made in limestone caves can sometimes be dated by measuring the radioactive decay of elements such as uranium within calcium carbonate deposits, sometimes called cave popcorn, that form naturally in the cave surface.

This was the case at the Leang Tedongnge site in South Sulawesi, where a small popcorn cave had formed on the pig figure’s hind leg after it had been painted.

The date indicates that the scene had been painted before 45,500 years ago, Dr. Aubert said, and the rock art could be much older.

A second image of a Sulawesi warty pig, from another cave in the region, dates back at least 32,000 years using the same method in the study published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.

The team hopes that 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 are still awaiting scientific dating. We hope that the early rock art of this island will produce even more significant discoveries,” said study co-author and Indonesian rock art expert Adhi Agus Oktaviana, a PhD student at Griffith University.

The researchers were confident that the image was of a warty pig, shown in profile and filled with irregular patterns of painted lines and stripes, due to the presence of pointed ridges on the head and facial warts, the two conspicuous bumps on horn shape on top. snout area.

Experts believe that the art is at least 45,500 years old. (Griffith University)

The pig painted on the ceiling of the cave is 187 centimeters long and 110 centimeters high and is red or purple in color; prehistoric artists used iron-rich rock as a pigment and could have used two colors.

Investigators said there are three other pigs at the scene.

Warty pigs are still common in Indonesia and have since been domesticated.

Not much is known about the people who made the art, Dr. 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 can’t definitively conclude that the artwork is the work of cognitively modern humans, that was the most likely explanation.

“Our species must have traversed Wallacea in a boat to reach Australia at least 65,000 years ago,” Dr. Aubert said, referring to the region between mainland Asia and Australia.

“However, the Wallacean Islands are poorly explored, and the earliest excavated archaeological evidence from this region is currently much younger.”

The non-figurative works of art have been attributed to other early humans, and the rock art found in Spain is believed to be the work of Neanderthals, who overlapped with Homo sapiens for about 30,000 years before disappearing 40,000 years ago.

However, this finding has been contested.

The cave on the island of Sulawesi. (Griffith University)

The representation of the warty pig is also older than other types of prehistoric works of art found in Europe, such as the “lion man”, a figure of a human with the head of a lion and a “figure of Venus” carved in ivory from mammoth, both found in Germany and believed to be about 40,000 years old.

It’s also older than a recent find on another Indonesian island: a picture of cattle that was found in a cave in Borneo.

“This discovery underscores the remarkable antiquity of Indonesian rock art and its great importance in understanding the deep history of the art and its role in early human history,” said study co-author Adam Brumm, a professor at the Australian Research Center of Griffith for Humanity. Evolution.

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