Mon. Sep 26th, 2022
Color photograph of stylized pig painted in red on a rock wall
enlarge This pig is perhaps the oldest human artwork to represent something specific, in this case a warthog.

Brumm et al 2021

A pig painted on the wall of an Indonesian cave is the world’s oldest figurative art – that is, it is the oldest known drawing of somethinginstead of an abstract design or stencil.

The 45,500-year-old ocher painting depicts a Sulawesi warthog, which appears to be watching a standoff between two other pigs. If that interpretation is correct, the painting is also a contender for the world’s oldest narrative scene. And it shows how much the earliest Indonesians observed and recorded the animals and ecosystems around them. A growing body of evidence tells us that the first people to reach the islands of Indonesia carried with them a culture of art and visual storytelling, as well as the means to cross the expanses of water between the islands and eventually reach Australia.

Painted pig’s feet, anyone?

Griffith University archaeologist Adam Brumm and his colleagues used uranium series dating to measure the age of a mineral deposit that had formed above one of the pig’s hind legs. As water flows through a limestone cave, it leaves behind tiny deposits of minerals, which gradually build up into layers of calcite, like the one on top of the Pig Painting. The minerals in the water contain trace amounts of uranium, which gradually decomposes into different uranium isotopes and eventually into a completely different element, thorium. By measuring the amounts of uranium-234 and thorium-230 in a cave deposit (also called speleothem), and then comparing it to the local groundwater, archaeologists can measure how long ago the speleothem was formed.

In this case, the result suggests that someone painted the pigs on the back wall of Liang Tedongnge (a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi) at least 45,500 years ago.

That means Liang Tedongnge’s painting breaks the record for oldest known figurative art, though not by much. The previous contenders were a 43,900-year-old painting in Liang Bulu’Sipong 4 in Sulawesi and a 40,000-year-old painting from Lubang Jeriji Saleh Cave in Borneo. The Borneo painting showed an unidentifiable animal with a spear in its side (blame erosion, not the artist, for the confusion). And Liang Bulu’Sipong’s painting 4 showed a group of hominid — but certainly not quite human — hunters taking on a much larger water buffalo, or anoa, and another Sulawesi warthog.

The wild boars seem to have been favorite subjects for Pleistocene Indonesian painters. Based on the art they left behind in at least 300 caves in South Sulawesi alone, those ancient artists had a distinctive style. Working in red or purple ocher, they drew simple outlines of their subjects, viewed from the side. Those contours were usually filled in by irregularly painted lines and dashes, and they rarely showed anatomical details such as eyes, ears, genitals or markings.

When did people first arrive in Indonesia?

The uranium series dating at Liang Tedongnge only gives a minimum age for the pig; it could technically be even older. At nearby Liang Balangajia 1, Brumm and his colleagues dated another pig painted on the ceiling of a small side room in the cave. It was at least 32,000 years old. But this time, the archaeologists also managed to date a layer of the cave wall just below the pigment. The result of those tests suggests that Liang Bangajia’s painting could be 1 to 73,400 years old — or anywhere in the 40,000 years in between.

That timescale probably also fits Leang Tedongnge’s painting, and it fits well with what other archaeological evidence suggests about the first travelers who reached Indonesia and started painting cave walls.

Artifacts left behind in sites in mainland Southeast Asia and in Australia tell us that humans reached this region of Asia sometime between 73,000 and 63,000 years ago, and that they reached Australia sometime between 69,000 and 59,000 years ago. To get from Southeast Asia to Australia, those ancient travelers had to cross the chains of islands in between — islands like Java, Sulawesi, Borneo, and Flores. That means humans probably reached Sulawesi sometime between 69,000 and 59,000 years ago.

But the cave paintings are the oldest actual evidence of human habitation on the Indonesian islands. Excavations on the Lesser Sunda Islands, which lie south of Sulawesi (and including Flores, home to our little extinct cousin Homo floresiensis) found stone tools and other signs of human presence dating to about 44,600 years ago, around the same age as the cave paintings in Sulawesi and Borneo.

Waves of Human History

What we do know for sure is that human history on these islands is longer than we can easily comprehend at first glance. We are closer in time to the artist who painted the Liang Tedongnge pig than that artist was to the humanoids who left the oldest tools on the island. Stone tools and animal remains between 194,000 and 118,000 years old were left behind by other hominins, now extinct; we don’t know yet if those long gone cousins ​​looked more like Denisovans or… homo erectus (or maybe like Homo floresiensis), both of which spread across Asia long before our species.

And 4,000 years ago, around the time people in Sumer and Egypt first developed writing systems, a new group of people arrived on the islands of what is now Indonesia. They left their own works of art, in their own distinctive style, in the caves on the islands, sometimes on top of the much, much older work of their predecessors.

It’s fascinating to imagine those early farmers reflecting on the art of the first humans to reach the islands — or the very first Indonesian artists who found those earlier hominid artifacts.

scientific progress2021 DOI: 10.1126/sciaadv.abd4648 (About DOIs).

By akfire1

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