Is This Indonesian Cave Painting the Earliest Portrayal of a Mythical Story?

In Room 67 of the Prado Museum in Madrid, Francisco Goya’s Saturn enthralls viewers with a scene of abomination. The painting depicts the Greek myth of Cronus (Saturn in the Roman version), who ate his children for fear of being overthrown by them. Critics have interpreted Goya’s rendition—the cannibal god shown wide-eyed with apparent horror, shame and madness as he devours his son—as an allegory of the ravages of war, the decay of Spanish society, the artist’s declining psychological state. It is one of the great narrative artworks of all time. Vanishingly few people attain such mastery of visual storytelling, of course, but even in its lesser forms, such creative expression is special: only our species, Homo sapiens, is known to invent fictional tales and convey them through representational imagery.

Archaeologists have eagerly sought the origins of our distinctive artistic behavior. For a long time, the oldest examples of figurative art (as opposed to abstract mark making) and depictions of fictitious creatures all came from sites in Europe dated to less than 40,000 years ago. But in recent years, researchers have uncovered older instances of figurative art in Southeast Asia. Now archaeologists working on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia have found the oldest figurative art to date. In a paper published on December 11 in Nature, Maxime Aubert, Adhi Agus Oktaviana and Adam Brumm, all at Griffith University in Australia, and their colleagues report that the art—a cave painting—appears to shows several fantastical humanoid figures hunting real-life animals. If they are right, the find could also constitute the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and supernatural thinking in the world.

The team discovered the ancient painting in 2017 in a cave known as Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4in southern Sulawesi’s karst region of Maros-Pangkep, a dramatic landscape of jutting limestone towers and cliffs. On the cave’s craggy wall, six tiny hunters confront a large buffalo, brandishing ropes or spears. Nearby, other hunters set upon more buffalos, as well as pigs. The hunters appear humanlike but exhibit mysterious animal traits—one possesses a tail, for instance, and another has a beak. Such beings are called therianthropes, and they are considered to be indicators of spiritual thinking. The researchers suggest that the various figures—all rendered in a pigment with the color of old rust—are part of the same scene and that it may show a communal hunting strategy known as a game drive, in which prey are flushed from cover and driven toward hunters.

To date the images, the researchers measured the radioactive decay of uranium in mineral deposits that had formed atop them. Sampling deposits from various parts of the scene, the team obtained minimum dates ranging from 43,900 to 35,100 years ago. If the painting is at least 43,900 years old, as Aubert and his colleagues argue, it would best the previous record holder for oldest figurative artwork—a 40,000-year-old painting of a cowlike animal found in a cave in Borneo—by several thousand years. It would also beat the 39,000- to 40,000-year-old Löwenmensch (“lion man”) figurine from Germany, which has long held pride of place as the earliest therianthrope, as well as a 17,000-year-old hunting scene from France’s famed Lascaux Cave.

The location of the newly discovered painting some 21 feet above the ground, in a spot that is hard for modern visitors to access without a ladder or climbing equipment, is intriguing. In Europe, early cave paintings are often found in deep, pitch-dark passages that would have been difficult to get to and work in, hinting that these places perhaps had special meaning to the artists. Brumm notes that in Sulawesi, ancient images are mostly found near the entrances to caves and rock-shelters, so they occur in the light zone, not the dark one. But as in the case of the Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 painting, they were created in high, hard-to-reach caves and niches in the region’s  limestone towers and cliff faces. “Apart from the art, these sites otherwise show no evidence for human habitation, and we assume ancient people used them just for image making,” Brumm remarks. “Why, we don’t know. But perhaps creating cave art in such inaccessible, liminal locations high above the ground surface had some sort of deeper cultural and symbolic significance.” He adds that to reach these spots, the artists presumably had to climb up vines or perhaps bamboo poles—or, in some cases, pick their way through the networks of interior cave passages inside the karst towers. But though the ancient artists in Sulawesi and their counterparts in Europe may have made their creations in places imbued with meaning and used some similar stylistic conventions in portraying their subjects, “any direct historical or cultural connection between the ice age animal art in Indonesia and Europe is unlikely,” Brumm says.

Indeed, although the newly found painting may push back the date for the earliest figurative, therianthropic and narrative art, it reveals little about the driving force behind the emergence of such creative expression. For decades scholars have puzzled over what seems to have been a long lag between the origin of modern human anatomy and modern human behaviors such as making art. Whereas modern anatomy evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago, the elements of modern behavior—as revealed through the material culture preserved in the archaeological record—coalesced rather later. Some have posited that a late-breaking cognitive shift might have supercharged our ancestors’ powers of ingenuity. Others suppose that cultural, social or environmental factors—or some combination thereof—stoked their creative fires. “This cave art we have dated doesn’t provide any direct insight into this interesting question—sadly!” Brumm says. But based on the available evidence, he suspects that fictional storytelling arose long before the this painting—“perhaps even before our species spread out of Africa.”

Regarding who painted the figures in Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4: No human skeletal remains have turned up in that cave or any other site on Sulawesi from that time period. We know human species besides H. sapiens, including Neandertals, made art, although, thus far, it appears to have been exclusively abstract. We also know other human species inhabited Southeast Asia in the not so distant past: Homo floresiensis resided on the Indonesian island of Flores 60,000 years ago; Homo luzonensis lived in the Philippines as recently as 50,000 years ago; and a genetic study has concluded that a late-surviving group of Denisovans may have interbred with H. sapiens in Indonesia or New Guinea just 15,000 years ago. Asked whether one of these other species might have painted the hunting scene, Brumm says, “Given the sophisticated nature of the imagery, our working hypothesis is that modern humans—people with essentially the same cognitive ‘architecture’ as us—made this cave art. It is presumed that these people became established in Sulawesi as part of the initial wave of migration of Homo sapiens into Indonesia at least 70,000 to 50,000 years ago.”

But the sophistication of the imagery is a matter of some dispute. Archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in England, an expert on early art who was not involved in the new study, points out that although one animal in the group is at least 43,900 years old, most of the other figures are not dated. “‘Scenes’ are very rare in Pleistocene art,” he observes. “If this were in Europe, Africa or North America, it would date to no more than [10,000] years ago.” Pettitt notes that the so-called therianthropes are out of scale with the animals they are said to be hunting. “Could they be unrelated to the animals?” he wonders. Or might they even have been painted at a much later time? “We know that in Europe, ‘painted caves’ were actually decorated in several phases, separated by thousands of years,” he says. Geochemical analysis of the pigments involved could be used to establish confidence that the images in Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 are contemporary.

Pettitt is also not convinced that the hunters are therianthropes—or even humanoid. “Some of them are vague and certainly open to question,” he asserts. “Even the clearest examples could be quadrupeds,” he adds, remarking on the horizontal depiction of these figures. And the alleged spears are merely “long lines that just pass close to some ‘humans’—hardly weapons in hand,” he says. “Thus, it is an open issue as to whether these represent humans and, if it is a scene, one of hunting.”

Future work may bring resolution. The discovery team’s surveys in the region have turned up many more sites containing figurative paintings that remain to be dated. Perhaps they will furnish new clues to the origins of the image-making, storytelling, myth-inventing modern human mind.

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