World's oldest known figurative artwork found in Indonesian cave
Archaeologists have discovered what they claim to be the oldest example of figurative art made by human hands. An ochre painting of pigs, found on a cave wall in Indonesia, has been dated to be at least 45,500 years old.
The art was found above a high ledge, along the rear wall of a pristine limestone cave called Leang Tedongnge in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Along with a pair of human handprints, it seems to show a species of wild boar that lives on the island.
“It shows a pig with a short crest of upright hairs and a pair of horn-like facial warts in front of the eyes, a characteristic feature of adult male Sulawesi warty pigs,” says Adam Brumm, co-leader of the research team. “Painted using red ochre pigment, the pig appears to be observing a fight or social interaction between two other warty pigs.”
It can be hard to figure out how old an artwork like this may be, but in this case the archaeologists got lucky. A small deposit of calcium carbonate had formed over the rear foot of one of the pictured pigs. These deposits are somewhat easier to date, and since the painting was obviously there first, it could return a minimum age for the human handiwork.
Using uranium-series analysis, the researchers determined the deposit was at least 45,500 years old. That makes the painting the oldest known artwork depicting a recognizable subject in the world, just pipping a previously described image from the same cave by a little under 2,000 years. However it’s not the oldest known artwork full-stop – that honor currently belongs to a South African rock criss-crossed with a series of abstract red lines, dated to over 70,000 years ago.
While the newly described painting may be the oldest currently known figurative artwork, the team doesn’t necessarily expect the record to remain standing for too long. Archaeological evidence shows that humans have lived in Australia for at least 65,000 years, and their most likely route into the continent was across these oceanic islands. Finding and dating other examples of rock art in Indonesia could help narrow down that window.
The research was published in the journal Science Advances, and the team describes the work in the video below.