July 13, 2024


The world’s oldest known picture story is a cave painting almost 6,000 years older than the previous record holder, about 10 km away on the same island in Indonesiasaid an international team of archaeologists.

The painting, believed to be at least 51,200 years old, was found at Leang Karampuang Cave on the eastern Indonesian island of Sulawesi, researchers from Griffith University, Southern Cross University and the Indonesian National Research and Innovation Agency wrote in the journal . Earth.

Samples were collected in 2017 but were only dated earlier this year.

The previous record holder was a life-size picture of a wild boar believed to have been created at least 45,500 years ago in a cave at Leang Tedongnge.

The recently discovered painting is of three therianthropes – or human-animal hybrids – and a wild boar.

Pigs played an important role in the culture of the cave painters. Photo: Dominic Julian/Indonesian National Research and Innovation Agency/Google Arts & Culture

Adhi Agus Oktaviana, the lead author and a PhD student at Griffith University, said the findings were “very surprising”.

He said the art is much older than known European Ice Age art, such as paintings in the Lascaux caves in France, which are believed to be around 20,000 years old.

The finding contradicts the academic view that early figurative cave art consisted of single-figure panels rather than scenes where figures interacted with each other.

The researchers used uranium ranges dating back to the layers of calcium carbonate that formed on top of the art. This involved extracting limestone samples which were then vaporized with a laser. The age of the sample was calculated by measuring the ratio of thorium to uranium.

The researchers said this method allowed the layers to be dated more accurately by ensuring that younger and older materials were not mixed together.

The researchers also dated art from a nearby cave – Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 – previously believed to be the oldest cave art in the world. They found that the artwork, once believed to be at least 44,000 years old, was at least 48,000 years old.

However, the site of the former oldest known cave painting at Leang Tedongnge could not be dated using the newer method, as no calcium carbonate material remained.

Dr Tristen Jones, a rock art expert at the University of Sydney, said the new method was “a huge leap forward in sharpening the resolution and accuracy of dating”. Typically, she said, rock art is extremely difficult to date since the art is made primarily of minerals. This means that radiocarbon dating, which is commonly used to date coral reefs, does not work.

Adam Brumm, a Griffith University professor who co-led the study, said that in the hundreds of excavations he had done in the region, there were frequent depictions of the warty pig. “They were clearly economically important to these elite people,” he said. “We can see they were also symbolically and perhaps even spiritually important to them.”

However, the researchers said the events taking place in the artwork were “difficult to interpret”, and it was unclear which animals inspired the human-animal hybrids, as they were drawn as “essentially stick figures”.

“For whatever reason…early people… [are] rarely depicted any form that could reasonably be interpreted as human,” Brumm said. “Animals are often drawn with incredible anatomical fidelity, but [early cave painters] make less effort to do it.”

He said the researchers were pretty sure one of the human-animal hybrids was a human with the head of a bird, and another had a tail, believed to be that of a civet.

“Storytelling is a hugely important part of human evolution and may even help explain our success as a species, but finding evidence for it in art, especially in very early cave art, is extraordinarily rare.”



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