As a craze for contemporary figurative painting continues on in the art world, archaeologists have uncovered what may be the world’s oldest representational artwork. In a new study published on Wednesday by Science Advances, a team of experts claims that a pig painting discovered in a cave in Sulawesi, an Indonesian island, is at least 45,500 years old, making it the oldest known figurative work ever found.
Although the painting, which features a pig with a protruding belly alongside two forms resembling hands, is of value because of its age, it is possible there are others like it. “There is no reason to suppose, however, that this early rock art is a unique example in Island Southeast Asia or the wider region,” the researchers note in their introduction.
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The newly discovered pig image has the potential to unlock various insights for historians and archaeologists. It is more than 25,000 years old than the cave paintings of various animals in Lascaux, France, which are estimated to date to 20,000 years ago and rank among the most iconic cave paintings in the world. The pig painting is also about 1,500 years older than another similar painting in Sulawesi found by researchers in 2019.
Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Australia’s Griffith University who worked on the study, told the New York Times that, “given the sophistication of this early representational artwork,” the pig painting was likely done by a modern human. The painter’s identity remains unknown, however.
Brumm told the Times that Indonesian rock art is deteriorating quickly. “It is very worrying,” he said, “and, given the current situation, the end result is likely to be the eventual destruction of this ice age Indonesian art, perhaps even within our lifetime.”