World’s oldest figurative artwork uncovered

Discovered two years ago on the island of Sulawesi, the 4.5 metres (13 foot) wide painting features wild animals being chased by half-human hunters wielding what appear to be spears and ropes.

Prehistoric cave art provides the most direct insight that we have into the earliest storytelling, in the form of narrative compositions or ‘scenes that feature explicit figurative depictions of sets of figures in spatial proximity to each other, and from which one can infer actions taking place among the figures. One such art is recently uncovered in an Indonesian cave.

A new study uncovers an elaborate rock art panel from the limestone cave of Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 (Sulawesi, Indonesia). Using dating technology, the team at Australia’s Griffith University said it had confirmed that the limestone cave painting dated back at least 44,000 years during the Upper Paleolithic period.

Discovered two years ago, the painting is 4.5 meter (13 foot) wide, and it portrays several figures that appear to represent therianthropes hunting wild pigs and dwarf bovids; this painting has been dated to at least 43.9 ka based on the uranium-series analysis of overlying speleothems.

Credit: A. Brumm  (figure design and production); A.A. Oktaviana (digital tracings); R. Sardi (photographs of rock art); C.C. Lee (Sus celebensis photograph). Caption: Late Pleistocene rock art panel from Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4. Discovered in 2017, this cave painting of a narrative hunting ‘scene’ from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi has been dated using Uranium-series analysis to at least 43,900 years ago – it is the oldest known figurative art in the world.
Credit: A. Brumm (figure design and production); A.A. Oktaviana (digital tracings); R. Sardi (photographs of rock art); C.C. Lee (Sus celebensis photograph). Caption: Late Pleistocene rock art panel from Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4. Discovered in 2017, this cave painting of a narrative hunting ‘scene’ from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi has been dated using Uranium-series analysis to at least 43,900 years ago – it is the oldest known figurative art in the world.

Scientists noted, “This hunting scene is—to our knowledge—currently the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world.”

“There are at least 242 caves or shelters with ancient imagery on Sulawesi alone, and new sites are being discovered annually.”

The study is published in the journal Nature.

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