Cave painting depicting human figures and a pig is the oldest known narrative art in the world.

Cave painting depicting human figures and a pig is the oldest known narrative art in the world.

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On a rocky cliff, through a narrow opening, at the end of a winding passage, lies a painting that archaeologists say is the world’s oldest known example of storytelling in art history.

Located inside the Liang Karampang limestone cave in Maros Bangkep district in South Sulawesi, this image depicts three human-like figures interacting with a wild boar.

The painting, made with red pigment, is at least 51,200 years old, according to A study published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature.

It is the latest prehistoric art to be found in the interesting limestone caves of the area. The same study A scene of half-human, half-animal figures hunting warty pigs and dwarf buffalo has been reconstructed.First described in 2019, it has been dated to at least 48,000 years ago. Three warty pigs painted on a cave wall, some The same researchers reported in 2021, It was previously the oldest depiction of an animal in the world – 45,500 years old.

The paintings are older than famous European cave arts such as: Lasco In France, although he is younger than Some of the geometric abstract artwork found in South AfricaIt’s the oldest narrative scene, the study’s authors said.

“We, as humans, identify ourselves as a storytelling species, and this is the oldest evidence that we do,” study author Maxime Aubert, a professor at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research at Griffith University in Australia, said by email.

The painter or painters, he said, “convey more information about the images than just individual still images. They tell us how to look at them in association.”

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Adam Broome, a co-author and professor of archaeology at Australia’s Griffith University, said he was “shocked and surprised” by the age of the art.

“It seems that these narrative artworks were very important to these early people in Sulawesi,” he said.

Cave art discoveries have challenged the long-held belief that artistic expression—and the cognitive leap that sparked the human imagination—began in Europe. In doing so, Indonesia’s cave paintings shed new light on the early story of humanity.

Brain Google Arts & Culture

Aerial view of Karambwang Hill in South Sulawesi, where the cave is located.

Dating cave art is often difficult if the work is made from mineral pigments such as ochre or manganese rather than biological materials such as carbon.

However, in limestone caves, archaeologists are able to use the radioactive decay of elements such as uranium within the calcium carbonate crusts that form naturally on some parts of the artwork to determine a minimum age.

The old method of dating cave art involved extracting a sample of rock, crushing it, combining the layers and testing them to determine the minimum age of the art underneath, said Renaud Johannes Boyo, an expert in archaeological geochemistry at Southern Cross University.

However, he said, in this study the team used an extremely thin laser beam – about half the size of a human hair – to map the individual calcium carbonate layers and determine the age of the first layer with much higher precision.

The new technique — developed by Johannes Boyo and Obert — is less invasive and allows researchers to calculate the age of an artwork from anywhere in the cross-section of the sample, said Obert, who expects it to “revolutionize rock art dating worldwide.”

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“This is a big improvement because we can get closer to the dye layer so that the lower ages are older but we can also avoid potential problems that could affect age calculations such as potential areas where uranium might have leaked out of the sample making it too old,” he said.

April Noel, a Paleolithic archaeologist at the University of Victoria in Canada whose research focuses on the origins of art, said she agreed that the painted scenes had a narrative quality, which may have served as a visual representation of oral stories lost over time.

“I think storytelling has a long history, and while we no longer have oral stories, we do have visual counterparts or visual supplements to those stories,” said Noel, who was not involved in the research.

Paul Pettit, professor of archaeology at Durham University in the United Kingdom, said the study’s dating of the cave art was strong, but it was a “leap of faith” to say the figurative art was narrative in scope.

Dominic Julien/Brain Google Arts

To determine when the cave paintings were created, the team used a new technique to date calcium carbonate deposits that formed on top of the artworks.

“It is unclear whether the apparent images are just isolated depictions that happened to be near other images, and whether the supposed spears are natural colors in the rock or just painted lines,” he said via email.

Visual culture may have been common among early humans in Africa and elsewhere, but it was probably done on organic, perishable materials like tree bark that did not withstand the ravages of time, said Petit, who was not involved in the research.

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Aubert said the team believes these prehistoric Picasso paintings were made by Homo sapiens, but it’s possible other human species created the artwork. The researchers have discovered Neanderthal carvings in France.

It’s also unclear why so much cave art has been found in this area of ​​Indonesia, Aubert said, but he and his team expect to find more. He said the finds suggest that Homo sapiens had a rich storytelling culture, using natural representations to tell visual stories about human-animal relationships.

“We believe that this art… may date back to the first wave of humans to arrive in Australia. About 65,000 years ago “On their migration out of Africa.”

Correction: In a previous version of this story, the headline and photo caption incorrectly stated the number of human figures in the cave art.

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