Griffith team awarded Science Magazine top-10 scientific breakthrough of the year

Professor Maxime Aubert and Adam Brumm from the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research (GCSCR) and the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE).

A team of Griffith University archaeologists has been awarded a coveted place in Science magazine’s top-10 scientific breakthroughs of the year for their work on the discovery of the world’s oldest known rock art.

The team, led by Professors Maxime Aubert and Adam Brumm from the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research (GCSCR) and the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE) discovered and dated a cave painting at least 44,000 years old in Sulawesi, Indonesia which portrays a group of part-human, part-animal figures — ‘therianthropes’ — hunting large mammals with spears or ropes.

Photo credit: Ratno Sardi.

“It represents our species first evidence of storytelling,” Professor Brumm said. “The figurative depiction of hunters as therianthropes may also be the oldest evidence for our ability to imagine the existence of supernatural beings, a cornerstone of religious experience.

“This is the first time such a detailed visual narrative or ‘story’ has been identified so early in the vast record of prehistoric cave art worldwide.”

The journal Science noted that the discovery “decisively unseats Europe as the first place where modern humans are known to have created figurative art” and demonstrate that our species had “already passed an important cognitive milestone: the ability to imagine beings that do not exist.”

Other research mentioned in this year’s prestigious list include the speedy development of Covid-19 vaccines, the discovery of the first room temperature superconductor, the first use of genome-snipping technology known as CRISPR to cure genetic disease in humans, and the development of an artificial intelligence (AI) program that accurately pre­dicts most protein structures.

“We are thrilled to be awarded this honour”, said Professor Aubert, “it highlights excellence in scientific collaboration between Indonesia and Australia.”

Photo Credit: Ratno Sardi

Griffith PhD student and Indonesian rock art expert Adhi Agus Oktaviana said his rock art surveys in Sulawesi with Professors Aubert and Brumm and fellow PhD student Basran Burhan have uncovered many new cave sites with spectacular figurative paintings that still await dating, but he has also observed the alarming deterioration of this art at almost every location.

“The cave wall surfaces on which the paintings were made are peeling off at an astonishing rate, erasing the art,” Oktaviana said.

“It would be a tragedy if these exceptionally old artworks should disappear in our own lifetime. But it is happening, so we need to understand why this globally significant rock art is deteriorating – and now.”

This is not the teams’ first international accolade. Their research was also recognised in Science Magazine the top-10 scientific breakthrough of 2014 and in the National Geographic Magazine top-20 scientific discoveries of the decade (2010-2019).

“In what has been a very tough year for Griffith it is wonderful to see our researchers making world-class discoveries that are changing our understanding of the human story,” said Vice Chancellor Professor Carolyn Evans.

“This is a well-deserved recognition of the bold contributions of our students and academic staff.The work illustrates beautifully the confluence of the arts and sciences and has profound implications for modern understanding of people, human thought and behaviour,” added Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) Professor Mario Pinto.