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World's oldest cave painting discovered in Indonesia

Deep within an Indonesian cave, a humble piece of art tells a story that dates back over 51,000 years. This remarkable painting, which depicts three human-like figures gathered around a large red pig, holds the title of the world’s oldest known narrative artwork ever made by human hands.

Titled “A flaking image of three people around a big red pig,” the painting stands testament to the dawn of human storytelling.

Unlocking time through intricate art

Scientists from Australia’s esteemed Griffith University made the remarkable discovery.

“This is the oldest evidence of storytelling,” said Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at the university. He was a member of the research team that had previously identified a 48,000-year-old hunting scene in another Indonesian cave.

This recent discovery, however, outdates the previous record holder by a substantial margin. “The first time we’ve passed the 50,000-year barrier,” noted Aubert.

The study provides an enticing glimpse into human cognitive evolution, suggesting a highly sophisticated level of storytelling ability among early humans.

“Our discovery suggests that storytelling was a much older part of human history than previously thought,” said archaeologist and co-author Adam Brumm.

Pushing boundaries with laser dating

The dating of this ancient artwork was accomplished using a cutting-edge laser ablation technique, which involved the use of lasers and computer software to create a “map” of rock samples.

This innovative method proved to be more precise, efficient, and affordable than the traditional uranium series method. It also required substantially smaller rock samples.

The archaeological team first validated this technique on the previously discovered hunting scene. The experts determined that the painting is at least 48,000 years old, contradicting the initial estimate of 44,000 years.

The new laser method was then used to date the cave painting from Sulawesi Island, which resulted in a staggering age estimate of 51,200 years.

Pig imagery in cave painting

One intriguing aspect of the ancient Indonesian artwork is the depiction of a large red pig, a motif that holds cultural and symbolic significance.

Pigs were not merely subjects of artistic representation but were integral to the sustenance and rituals of early human communities.

The choice of a pig in the artwork could indicate its importance in the diet or spiritual practices of the people who created it.

Understanding why early humans chose specific animals for their narratives can provide deeper insights into their daily lives, beliefs, and interactions with their environment.

Early human migration

This groundbreaking discovery also has implications for our understanding of early human migration patterns.

The presence of such sophisticated artwork in Indonesia suggests that early humans who migrated out of Africa were not only adept at survival but also carried with them a rich tradition of storytelling and artistic expression.

This challenges the notion that complex cognitive abilities and cultural practices developed solely in Europe or the Middle East. Instead, it highlights a more diverse and widespread emergence of human creativity across different regions.

Future research in other parts of the world may uncover additional pieces of this intricate puzzle, further expanding our understanding of humanity’s shared heritage.

Age-old mystery of cave paintings

The origins of human evolution can be traced back to Africa over 300,000 years ago. The first known images created by our ancestors are simple lines and patterns in ochre found in South Africa, dating back 100,000 years.

A “huge gap” follows this evidence until the Indonesian cave paintings, dating back 50,000 years. Why such a gap? Why isn’t art omnipresent throughout the timeline of human evolution?

While some suggest that older artworks might simply not have survived the test of time, others believe artifacts from the missing window of time are still out there, patiently awaiting discovery.

Previously, it was believed that narrative art first surfaced in Europe. However, the Indonesian cave art – being so much older than what’s been found elsewhere, including Europe – urges us to reassess these beliefs.

These revelations stand as a telling testament to human creativity and ingenuity, reminding us that pieces of our collective past might still be out there, etched into cave walls or buried under layers of history, eagerly waiting for us to unravel their ancient mysteries.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

Image Credit: Griffith University/AFP

Video Credit: Southern Cross University


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