A team of scientists co-led by researchers from Australia’s Griffith University, the Indonesian National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) and Southern Cross University has discovered and dated a cave painting on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi that may be the oldest known evidence of storytelling in art, with the findings published in the journal Nature

An aerial shot of Karampuang Hill where the cave site is located. Credit: Google Arts & Culture

The painting, located in the limestone cave of Leang Karampuang in the Maros-Pangkep region of South Sulawesi, portrays three human-like figures interacting with a wild pig.  

To determine its age, the team applied a novel method of laser ablation U-series (LA-U-series) analysis, to date tiny layers of calcium carbonate that had formed on top of the art.  

The results revealed the underlying artwork was painted at least 51,200 years ago, making it the oldest known reliably dated cave art image in the world, and the earliest narrative art found anywhere. 

The team was led by Adhi Agus Oktaviana, an Indonesian rock art specialist from the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) in Jakarta and PhD student in the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research (GCSCR).  

The painting depicts three human-like figures interacting with a wild pig.  

The new LA-U-series dating method was co-developed by Professor Maxime Aubert, a specialist in archaeological science at GCSCR, and his colleague at Southern Cross University (SCU) in Lismore, Professor Renaud Joannes-Boyau an expert in archaeogeochemistry in the Geoarchaeology and Archaeometry Research Group (GARG).  

“We have previously used the uranium-series method to date very old rock art in two parts of Indonesia, Sulawesi and Borneo, but our new LA-U-series technique is more accurate, allowing us to date the earliest calcium carbonate layers formed on the art and get closer to the point in time the art was created. It will revolutionise rock art dating,” Professor Aubert said. 

“The innovative technique we’ve pioneered enables us to create detailed ‘maps’ of calcium carbonate layers. This capability empowers us to pinpoint and steer clear of regions affected by natural diagenesis processes, which stem from intricate growth histories. Consequently, our age determinations for rock art become more robust and dependable,” explained Professor Joannes-Boyau. 

According to Oktaviana, the discovery that the Leang Karampuang painting is at least 51,200 years old has important implications for our understanding of the origin of early art.  

“Our results are very surprising: none of the famous European Ice Age art is anywhere near as old as this, with the exception of some controversial finds in Spain, and this is the first-time rock art dates in Indonesia have ever been pushed beyond the 50,000-year mark,” Oktaviana said. 

PhD Adhi Agus Oktaviana. Credit: Ratno Sardi

The team used LA-U-series to re-date calcium carbonate deposits overlying a cave painting at a site in Maros-Pangkep, Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4.

This painting comprises a narrative ‘scene’ depicting figures interpreted as therianthropes (part-human, part-animal beings) hunting warty pigs and dwarf buffalo and had previously been dated by the team to at least 44,000 years ago.

Griffith and BRIN team members, from L-R – Prof Maxime Aubert, Budianto Hakim, Prof Adam Brumm and PhD Adhi Agus Oktaviana. Credit Ratno Sardi

Using the new technique, they demonstrated this artwork is some 4000 years older in minimum age at around 48,000 years. 

Professor Adam Brumm from Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE), who co-led the study, said that the cave art from Leang Karampuang and Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 casts new light on the great age and important role of storytelling in the history of art.  

“It is noteworthy that the oldest cave art we have found in Sulawesi thus far consists of recognisable scenes: that is, paintings that depict humans and animals interacting in such a way that we can infer the artist intended to communicate a narrative of some kind – a story,” Professor Brumm said. 

Professor Brumm said this was a novel finding because the academic view of early figurative cave art has long been that it consisted of single-figure panels in which no obvious scenes were evident, and that pictorial representations of storytelling only appeared much later in the art of Europe.  

The discovery by Oktaviana and the Griffith-led team therefore suggested that narrative storytelling was a crucial part of early human artistic 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,” Oktaviana said. 

The study ‘Narrative cave art in Indonesia by 51,200 years ago’ has been published in Nature.