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World's Oldest Cave Art Found

The oldest example of figurative cave art has been discovered in the Indonesian Island of South Sulawesi.

Oldest known cave art, Sulawesi
Credit: BRIN Google Arts and Culture / via BBC

The painting of a wild pig and three human-like figures is at least 51,200 years old, more than 5,000 years older than the previous oldest cave art, also discovered in the same region, and also featuring a pig. The discovery pushes back the time that modern humans first showed the capacity for creative thought.

So much so that Prof Maxime Aubert from Griffith University in Australia told BBC News that the find would change ideas about human evolution. “The painting tells a complex story. It is the oldest evidence we have for storytelling. It shows that humans at the time had the capacity to think in abstract terms,” he said.

Although it is difficult to tell from the image, experts say that the painting shows a pig standing still with its mouth partly open and at least three human-like figures. The largest human figure has both arms extended and appears to be holding a rod. The second is immediately in front of the pig with its head next to its snout. It also seems to be holding a stick, one end of which may be in contact with the pig’s throat. The last human-like figure seems to be upside-down with its legs facing up and splayed outwards. It has one hand reaching towards and seemingly touching the pig’s head. Or, this hunter is simply being portrayed to show what happens when a large angry wild pig charges and knocks you to the ground.

Karampuang Hill, Sulawesi
The painting was found in a cave in Karampuang Hill | Credit: BRIN Google Arts and Culture

The team of scientists - led by Adhi Agus Oktaviana, an Indonesian rock art specialist - says that that narrative storytelling was a crucial part of early human culture in Indonesia from a very early point in time.

“Humans have probably been telling stories for much longer than 51,200 years, but as words do not fossilise we can only go by indirect proxies like depictions of scenes in art - and the Sulawesi art is now the oldest such evidence by far that is known to archaeology,” he said.

The question is what triggered this awakening of the human mind, according to Dr Henry Gee, who is a senior editor at the journal Nature, where the details were published. “It is very romantic to think that at some point in that time something happened in the human brain, but I think it is more likely that there are even earlier examples of representational art”.

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