World’s Oldest Known Cave Painting, Featuring a Mysterious Pig, Found in Indonesia

Some 51,200 years ago on the ceiling of a limestone cave in the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi, art history was made. A wild pig was painted with crude red pigment, standing at peace beside three human-like figures.

This newly discovered artwork is now heralded as the oldest known cave painting, surpassing the previous record-holder by some 10,000 years, per a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

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“The method is a significant improvement over other methods and should revolutionize rock art dating worldwide,” Maxime Aubert, archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia and one of the lead authors of the study, told Reuters

According to the study, the scene in the Leang Karampuang cave in the Maros-Pangkep region of South Sulawesi province features a pig measuring 36 inches by 15 inches. The pig depicted standing upright by the group of people. Several smaller images of pigs were also found in the cave, and were similarly dated using a laser to assess a crystal called calcium carbonate that develops organically on the pigment. Barring any future discoveries, the paintings represent the earliest example of narrative storytelling in visual art. 

“The three human-like figures and the pig figure were clearly not depicted in isolation in separate parts of the rock art panel,” Griffith University archaeologist Adam Brumm, a fellow study leader, said in a statement. The relationship between the humanoids and the pig, however, is still unknown. 

“Two of these figures are holding objects of some kind, and at least one figure seems to be reaching towards the pig’s face. Another figure is positioned directly above the pig’s head in an upside down position,” Brumm said. 

The mystery only deepens, as scarce information is known about the people who painted the Sulawesi cave, though the study leaders have guessed carbon dating could reveal them as the first Homo sapiens to ever pass through the region during their migration from Africa to Australia, some 65,000 years ago. 

The Leang Karampuang painting, the study added, predates famous cave paintings of Europe, the oldest of which was found at El Castillo in Spain and created around 40,800 years ago.

“This discovery of very old cave art in Indonesia drives home the point that Europe was not the birthplace of cave art, as had long been assumed. It also suggests that storytelling was a much older part of human history, and the history of art in particular, than previously recognized,” Brumm said.


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