A prehistoric artist’s realistic portrayal of a wild pig, warts and all, might just be the oldest known example of a painting that depicts the animal world.
Four years ago, scientists came upon the purplish pig adorning the walls of a cave hidden in a highland valley on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. They now estimate that it was painted a staggering 45,500 years ago. If that date is correct, the find in Leang Tedongnge cave could represent the earliest known example of figurative art, which is created when painters illustrate objects from the real world rather than simply abstract patterns and designs.
Even if the painting proves to be the oldest known art of its kind, the authors of a new Science Advances study dating and describing it stressed that they have no reason to suspect that it’s unique. In recent years Sulawesi’s limestone karst caves have become known for an abundance of prehistoric art. Hundreds of caves and shelters in the region have been found to contain images, from handprint stencils to animal drawings, that provide an intimate glimpse into the vanished world of humankind’s prehistoric past.
Animals were popular subjects for Pleistocene painters, who used brushstrokes and their fingers to depict them in red and purple hues. The Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis), identified by its distinctive spiky head crests and snout warts, appears in more than 80 percent of the known animal art representations in South Sulawesi.
“These are small native pigs that are endemic to Sulawesi and are still found on the island, although in ever-dwindling numbers,” says co-author Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. Brumm adds that archaeological excavations show that Sus celebensis was the most commonly hunted large prey species in the area for tens of thousands of years. “The common portrayal of these warty pigs in the ice age rock art also offers hints at the deep symbolic significance and perhaps spiritual value of Sulawesi warty pigs in the ancient hunting culture,” he says.
The nearly complete pig figure in Leang Tedongnge appears on the cave’s back wall and is associated with a pair of nearby hand stencils, while several other incomplete pig figures in various states of decay appear nearby. If they were all painted at the same time, which isn’t known, the pigs might capture an episode of confrontation or mating. “The arrangement of the figures is suggestive, in our view, of a narrative composition or scene in the modern Western sense,” the authors write in their study.
The pig paintings were created by pulverizing ochre into a powder, which was mixed with water to produce a vivid paint that unfortunately defies dating. To determine an age for the painting, Brumm and colleagues used a technique to age mineral deposits known as ‘cave popcorn’ that formed over parts of the pig. Water seeping down the cave walls over the ages left behind calcite crusts. Those crusts contain uranium, which decays into thorium at a known rate—a process that allows for age dating called uranium series analysis. Since the paintings had to have been on the wall before minerals could have formed atop them, the method provides a minimum age for the art below, though its accuracy has inspired some scholarly debate. If some uranium leaches out in the water rather than decaying, one criticism points out, ages may be artificially increased.
Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at Durham University (U.K.) not involved with the research, questioned whether the date sampling of the Leang Tedongnge pig is correct. Because they build up over time, the mineral samples closest to the painting should be older than those closer to the surface, he says, and it’s not clear that’s the case. He also noted that even if the age is correct, the team’s findings don’t rule out the possibility that cave art such as he and others have described in Europe may in fact be older. The minimum ages suggested by dating paintings in Europe and Sulawesi simply mean the artworks are at least as old as that date, but paintings from either place could be older.
“We do need to see a little less hyperbole and a little more rigour before we start rewriting prehistory,” says Pettit.
Until recently, archaeologists widely believed that Europeans first created figurative art that recorded impressions of the world. The oldest-known examples came from stunning and justifiably famous cave collections at Spain’s El Castillo cave and France’s Chauvet Cave, where sophisticated lions and mammoths were painted perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.
That Europeans painted the first figurative art was called into question in 2014, when a team including Brumm found paintings of pig-deer animals and stenciled handprints on the walls of a Sulawesi cave. Since then evidence has emerged showing the widespread proficiency of prehistoric artists on the islands of Wallacea, a region bridging Asia and Australia.
In 2018, Brumm and colleagues found images adorning the walls of Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave in the remote rainforests of Indonesian Borneo. One painting, of a wild cattle-like animal, was found to be at least 40,000 years old. A year later they unveiled a striking representation of a pig and buffalo hunt, found in Sulawesi and dated to some 44,000 years ago. The composition of those animals suggests to some that they might represent a type of narrative art or storytelling, though that interpretation is controversial.
This most recent discovery of a pig painting now “adds further weight to the view that the first modern human rock art traditions probably did not arise in Ice Age Europe as long assumed,” Brumm says.
The yawning geographical and cultural divides between cave art sites in Europe and Southeast Asia might suggest that human ancestors developed the same types of abstract thinking and artistic skills independently at different places. Another theory suggests that the seeds of such artistic expression might have been planted in Africa, birthplace of humanity, and been part of the toolkit people carried with them on migrations to other parts of the world.
The possibility exists that at least some of the ancient artists in Europe and Asia were not modern humans. Figurative art represents a cognitive leap in abstract thinking that has thus far only been definitively associated with humans. But it appears that Neanderthals may have also created art, though only more simplistic lines, dots and hand stencils have surfaced so far. At one key Spanish cave site, where Pettitt has worked, it appears someone created more simplistic cave paintings 65,000 years ago—20,000 years before humans lived in the region—though the dating of that site .
It’s not known whether modern humans lived in Indonesia 45,000 years ago, when some Pleistocene person put their mind and hands to work adorning a cave wall with a purple pig.
Stone artifacts on Sulawesi date to 194,000 to 118,000 years ago, but scientists think they were made by some extinct species of ancient hominin. Recent evidence, including fossil teeth, suggests that some modern humans may have lived in Asia 80,000 to 120,000 years ago. But scientists have found no proof to say whether they inhabited Wallacea.
“Brumm et al.’s work, if correct, would certainly add credence to the notion that figurative art was created by Homo sapiens as it dispersed across the Old World before 40,000 years ago. This is the parsimonious explanation,” Pettitt says. “Given the paucity of human fossils in the region at this time we cannot of course rule out authorship by another human species, such as the Neanderthals who were producing non-figurative art in Europe.”
More prehistoric artworks seem likely to emerge among the caves and shelters of Sulawesi and across Indonesia, where many islands haven’t even been investigated by archaeologists. Given the presence of contemporaneous artists in both Pleistocene Europe and Southeast Asia, Brumm even thinks new centers of ancient artistic expression may be found. Prehistoric people lived in many regions lying between Europe and Southeast Asia, and their works of art might still await discovery.
“In fact some of the known rock art sites in this area could be that old, they just haven’t yet been scientifically dated,” he says. “So humanity’s earliest art could be hiding in plain sight.”