World’s oldest cave art discovered in Indonesia

A team of Griffith University archaeologists has shared in the discovery of what may be the world’s oldest known cave painting, dating back to at least 45,500 years ago.

Uncovered in South Sulawesi during field research conducted with Indonesia’s leading archaeological research centre, Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (ARKENAS), the cave painting consists of a figurative depiction of a Sulawesi warty pig, a wild boar that is endemic to this Indonesian island.

Leang Tedongnge cave mouth. Credit: AA Oktaviana.

“The Sulawesi warty pig painting we found in the limestone cave of Leang Tedongnge is now the earliest known representational work of art in the world, as far as are aware,” said Professor Adam Brumm from Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, co-leader of the Griffith-ARKENAS team.

“The cave is in a valley that’s enclosed by steep limestone cliffs and is only accessible by a narrow cave passage in the dry season, as the valley floor is completely flooded in the wet. The isolated Bugis community living in this hidden valley claim it had never before been visited by Westerners.”

The Sulawesi warty pig painting dated to at least 45,500 years ago is part of a rock art panel located above a high ledge along the rear wall of Leang Tedongnge.

“It shows a pig with a short crest of upright hairs and a pair of horn-like facial warts in front of the eyes, a characteristic feature of adult male Sulawesi warty pigs,” Professor Brumm said.

“Painted using red ochre pigment, the pig appears to be observing a fight or social interaction between two other warty pigs”.

“Humans have hunted Sulawesi warty pigs for tens of thousands of years,” said Basran Burhan, an Indonesian archaeologist from southern Sulawesi and current Griffith PhD student, who led the survey that found the cave art.

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

“These pigs were the most commonly portrayed animal in the ice age rock art of the island, suggesting they have long been valued both as food and a focus of creative thinking and artistic expression”.

Team co-leader Professor Maxime Aubert, a dating specialist from the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, sampled the art for Uranium-series dating, conducted at the University of Queensland Radiogenic Isotope Facility.

“Rock art is very challenging to date,” Professor Aubert said. “However, rock art produced in limestone caves can sometimes be dated using Uranium-series analysis of calcium carbonate deposits (‘cave popcorn’) that form naturally on the cave wall surface used as a ‘canvas’ for the art.

“At Leang Tedongnge, a small cave popcorn had formed on the rear foot of one of the pig figures after it had been painted, so when dated, it provided us with a minimum age for the painting.”

It was this mineral deposit that, after careful removal by Professor Aubert, was Uranium-series dated to yield an age of 45,500 years, indicating that the rock art scene had been painted sometime prior to this.

A second Sulawesi warty pig image, from Leang Balangajia 1, another cave in the region, was dated to at least 32,000 years ago using the Uranium-series method.

“We have now dated multiple examples of early rock art in Sulawesi, including depictions of animals and narrative scenes that are outstanding both for the quality of their execution and rarity worldwide”, Professor Aubert said.

Pig painting (pig 1) dating to at least 45,500 years ago at Leang Tedongnge.
Credit: AA Oktaviana.

Recognisable ‘scenes’ are especially uncommon in early cave art. The previously oldest dated rock art ‘scene’, at least 43,900 years old, was a depiction of hybrid human-animal beings hunting Sulawesi warty pigs and dwarf bovids, discovered by the same research team at a nearby limestone cave site. That discovery was ranked by the influential journal Science as one of the top-10 scientific breakthroughs of 2020.

“We have found and documented many rock art images in Sulawesi that still await scientific dating. We expect the early rock art of this island to yield even more significant discoveries,” said study co-author and Indonesian rock art expert Adhi Agus Oktaviana, an ARKENAS researcher doing his PhD at Griffith.

The dated rock art of Sulawesi now represents some of the earliest, if not the earliest, archaeological evidence for modern humans in the vast zone of oceanic islands located between Asia and Australia-New Guinea – known as ‘Wallacea’.

“Our species must have crossed through Wallacea by watercraft in order to reach Australia by at least 65,000 years ago,” said Professor Aubert. “However, the Wallacean islands are poorly explored and presently the earliest excavated archaeological evidence from this region is much younger in age.”

The Griffith team expects that future research in eastern Indonesia will lead to the discovery of much older rock art and other archaeological evidence, dating back at least 65,000 years and possibly earlier.

“This discovery underlines the remarkable antiquity of Indonesia’s rock art and its great significance for understanding the deep-time history of art and its role in humanity’s early story,” Professor Brumm said.