In a valley hidden on an Indonesian island, there is a cave decorated with what may be the oldest figurative art ever seen by modern eyes.
The vivid appearance of a wild boar, described and filled with mulberry-colored pigment, dates back at least 45,500 years, according to a study published Wednesday in advances in science. It was discovered deep inside a cave called Leang Tedongnge in December 2017, during an archaeological survey led by Basran Burhan, a Griffith University graduate student and co-author of the new research. The animal in the painting resembles a delightful pig, a species that still lives today on the cave island of Sulawesi.
Sulawesi was already considered by some experts to be the site of the earliest known representative cave art in the world. A seductive scene elsewhere on the island, which shows human-animal hybrids, was found to be at least 43,900 years old, reported by the same team in a 2019 study.
These examples of cave art, along with another pig figure spotted in a cave further south by Adhi Agus Oktavhiana, a Griffith University graduate student and co-author of the study, hint at the rich cultures living on the Indonesian islands . The findings also open up a debate as to whether the artists may have been Homo sapiens, or members of another extinct human species.
The Leang Tedongnge site is only about 40 miles from Makassar, an active city of about 1.5 million people. But the cave has remained virtually untouched because it is too challenging to reach.
Getting there requires a difficult journey along a steep forest path that runs through a mountainous terrain and ends in a narrow cave passage, which is the only entrance to the valley, said Adam Brumm, also an archaeologist at Griffith University, and a co-author of the Valley study can only be reached during the dry season; during the wet season, the valley floor is completely flooded and residents have to travel around by canoe.
Dr. Brumm credited local scientists and others for making possible discovery at the cave site.
After discovering the pig painting, the team used dating uranium series to determine its minimum age, reaching 45,500 years. But it is possible that the painting itself is thousands of years older because the technique only estimates the age of a mineral deposit, the speleothem, that forms on the cave walls.
The question of who made the paintings is still shrouded in mystery.
Human skeletal remains as old as 45,500 years have never been found in Sulawesi, so it is not clear that the artists were anatomically modern humans. The islands now called Indonesia were inhabited by various hominins, the wider family to which humans belong for long periods of time. Some of these hominid remnants date back over a million years, said Rasmi Shoocongdej, an archaeologist at Silpakorn University in Thailand who was not involved in the study.
Dr. Brumm and his colleagues assume that the painters were modern people, given the sophistication of this early representative work of art. Moreover, antique paintings share features with prehistoric art made by people elsewhere in the world, including the presence of hand marks and the use of a twisted perspective, in which animals are painted both in profile and in frontal view.
Dr. Brumm says he believes it is only a matter of time before human remains of this era are found in archeological excavations in the region.
Joo Zilho, an archaeologist at the University of Barcelona who was not involved in the study, disagrees with the teams’ assumption that modern humans created the paintings. As a co-author of a 2018 study suggesting that Neanderthals leave non-figurative art on Spanish cave walls, he thinks another extinct human species may have created the images.
An anatomically modern man is an anatomical definition, he said. It has nothing to do with cognition, intelligence or behavior.
Dr. Zilho added, There is no evidence regarding the anatomy of the people who did this.
While it is easy to focus on the claim that these are the oldest prehistoric images still found by humans, Margaret Conkey, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says it overshadows the much broader implications of the discovery.
What stood out for the study from her point of view was his important contribution to understanding how people could stay in touch with each other in prehistoric Sulawesi, and how they are creating social world through material and visual manifestations.
While the new study uses the older term, Drs. Brumm and his colleagues expect to find images in Sulawesi with even more advanced ages.
We think there is a much older art to rock and other evidence of human habitation in Sulawesi and other islands within the part of eastern Indonesia known as the Wallacean archipelago, the gateway to the mainland of Australia, Dr Brumm said.
Unfortunately, time is of the essence: Indonesia cave art is deteriorating rapidly, raising the sad hope that many of the oldest paintings on Earth may fade before they are rediscovered.
We have documented this phenomenon in almost every rock art site in the region and monitoring by our colleagues at the local cultural heritage agency suggests that art stratification is occurring at an alarming rate, Dr Brumm said. It is very disturbing and given the current situation the end result is likely to be the ultimate destruction of this Indonesian ice age art, perhaps even during our lifetime.
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