A 51,200-Year-Old Cave Painting Might Be the World’s Oldest Narrative Art

The drawing of three human figures with a pig was discovered in an Indonesian cave—and might be the world’s oldest art that tells a story.
Three human-like figures and a large pig are drawn on a limestone cave wall.
Three human-like figures and a large pig are drawn on a limestone cave wall. / Griffith University

In 2017, archaeologist Adam Brumm received an exciting WhatsApp message: His colleagues in Sulawesi, Indonesia, had discovered a cave painting depicting three jumping pigs, along with other drawings, on the limestone walls of the island’s Maros-Prangkep caves. Some of the paintings were found to be over 45,500 years old, predating the famous Lascaux and Chauvet cave paintings by several thousand years. 

Now, a new study in the journal Nature suggests some of the Maros-Prangkep drawings are even older—and one, a scene of three human-like figures and a pig, may be the oldest narrative artwork ever discovered.

Using a different dating technique, a team including Brumm and led by Indonesian archaeologist Adhi Agus Oktaviana determined that the art was created at least 51,200 years ago.

A Matter of Methods

Initially, the Sulewasi paintings were dated using a solution-based uranium-series method, which measures the radioactive decay of uranium into thorium from calcium carbonate deposits. The deposits are often found on and around ancient cave paintings.

Though widely used in archaeology, the method tends to underestimate the true age of cave art. For their study, Oktaviana’s team used a new, more accurate dating method called laser ablation uranium imaging, which dates calcium carbonate that is physically closer to the cave art’s pigment. 

The entrance to Leang Karampuang cave
The entrance to Leang Karampuang cave, where some of the oldest cave art has been found. / Google Arts & Culture

One painting of a hunting scene, previously estimated to be at least 43,900 years old, was found to be over 4000 years older that that. The pig-and-three-humans scene, which had never been dated, was found to have been created at least 51,200 years ago.

The results make the scene the oldest known narrative painting, but not the oldest cave art. That title currently rests with a collection of 64,000-year-old hand prints at the Maltravieso Cave in Spain.

Art’s Murky Origins

The results of the study recontextualizes our knowledge of when and where figurative art first evolved. “Presently, the earliest widely accepted evidence for image-making by our species is from Middle Stone Age southern Africa [around 100,000-75,000 years ago] and comprises geometric motifs,” the authors write. The painting in Sulawesi adds to the question of “whether the origin of figurative depiction can be traced to an artistic culture that arose in Africa after the emergence of this early tradition of producing non-representational marks, or somewhere outside it after the dispersal of H. sapiens, including in Southeast Asia.”

Previously, experts who believed figurative art emerged after humans’ dispersal from Africa insisted that the tradition began in Europe, not Asia. Oktaviana’s team shows that the oldest paintings in Indonesia predate any known European cave art, and throws another glimmer of light on the beginnings of human expression.

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