An Indonesian cave painting that depicts a prehistoric hunting scene could be the world’s oldest figurative artwork dating back nearly 44,000 years, a discovery that points to an advanced artistic culture, according to new research.
Spotted two years ago on the island of Sulawesi, the 4.5 metres (13 foot) wide painting features wild animals being chased by half-human hunters wielding what appear to be spears and ropes, said the study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
Using dating technology, the team at Australia’s Griffith University said it had confirmed that the limestone cave painting dated back at least 43,900 years during the Upper Palaeolithic period.
“This hunting scene is — to our knowledge — currently the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world,” researchers said.
The discovery comes after a painting of an animal in a cave on the Indonesian island of Borneo was earlier determined to have been at least 40,000 years old, while in 2014, researchers dated figurative art on Sulawesi to 35,000 years ago.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Griffith University archaeologist Adam Brumm told Nature.
“I mean, we’ve seen hundreds of rock art sites in this region, but we’ve never seen anything like a hunting scene,” he added.
– ‘Mythological or supernatural’ –
For many years, cave art was thought to have emerged from Europe, but Indonesian paintings have challenged that thinking.
There are at least 242 caves or shelters with ancient imagery on Sulawesi alone, and new sites are being discovered annually, the team said.
In the latest dated scene, the animals appear to be wild pigs and small buffalo, while the hunters are depicted in reddish-brown colours with human bodies and the heads of animals including birds and reptiles.
The human-animal figures, known in mythology as therianthropes, suggested that early humans in the region were able to imagine things that did not exist in the world, the researchers said.