This week, archaeologists announced that the earliest known cave art by modern humans has been discovered in Indonesia. Dating to nearly 44,000 years old, it might even be the oldest narrative story in human history.
The 4.5-metre-wide panel is “the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world,” confirmed Pak Hamrullah, an Indonesian archaeologist and caver.
Wielding long swords or possibly ropes, eight human-animal hybrid figures surround wild pigs and buffaloes in the painting. Yet the animals definitely take centre stage here, dwarfing the humanoid stick figures in size and detail.
Hamrullah first saw the ground-breaking painting in 2017. The Maros-Pangkep cave system of Sulawesi, an Indonesian island, was thought to have been thoroughly explored until a member of Hamrullah’s team noticed an unmapped entrance. Only visible from a tall fig tree, a new high-level chamber was discovered.
“And then, bang, there’s this incredible new rock art site in there that’s essentially like nothing we’ve ever seen before in this entire region,” recalled Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution at Griffith University.
Before this incredible discovery the earliest known figurative scene was the Lascaux Cave in France, painted around 20,000 years later. The Maros-Pangkep panel now suggests the emergence of modern thinking occurred much earlier than archaeologists had initially proposed.
“We were stunned by the implications of this image,” explained Brumm. “The most fascinating aspect is that it has all the key elements of modern human cognition; hand stencils, a narrative scene, human-like figures that were conceived of something that doesn’t really exist in the real world. Everything is there by 44,000 years ago.”
Scientific research has dated the Maros-Pangkep painting to at least 35,100 to 43,900 years old. To find this minimum date range, scientists analysed the rate of decay of mineral growths that had formed over the rock surface, amusingly known as cave popcorn.
Some researchers, however, have questioned the story-telling quality of the painting. “Whether it’s a scene is questionable,” advised Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist and rock-art specialist at Durham University. Pettitt proposed it could instead be a series of images painted over time.
Even though we might never know who painted these anonymous artworks or discover the meaning behind them, it is the mystery of cave paintings that still fascinates us modern humans.
“It’s just amazing and to me it just shows how much more rock art that is out there waiting to be discovered that completely changes our understanding of the human story,” marvelled Brumm.