What the Oldest Known Cave Painting Reveals About Early Humans (and What It Doesn’t)



In 2018, researcher Maxime Aubert and his crew ventured right into a hidden valley about an hour’s stroll from the closest highway on the spider-like Indonesian island of Sulawesi. That they had simply slept on the porch of a neighborhood household’s rice farm after a couple of glasses of ballo, a fermented sugar palm alcohol that the world is legendary for. 

Simply throughout the valley, Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith College in Queensland, Australia, may glimpse the Leang Tedongnge cave. The staff traveled to see it after listening to reviews from Basran Burhan, an Indonesian archaeologist. Aubert, who research historic cave artwork, had beforehand studied what had been probably the world’s oldest-known artifical examples from so long as 44,000 years in the past — however, as he would later study, the artwork right here at Leang Tedongnge would date again even additional.   

Quickly after, Aubert and his colleagues entered the Leang Tedongnge cave, which was utilized by the close by household to retailer farm gear. Simply above a small ledge inside, they discovered a drawing of three pigs painted in crimson ochre, proven with loads of hair and warts. Above the pigs appeared two stencils of individuals’s arms. The illustration could have depicted a battle, Aubert says. 

The world’s residents didn’t even know they existed. Actually, they thought somebody will need to have snuck in in a single day and left some graffiti. “The rock artwork is simply there at the back of somebody’s rice paddy,” he says. “There’s simply a lot of it.”  

Simply as intriguing as the pictures themselves, Aubert took a detailed take a look at the calcite that had constructed up on one of many pigs’ legs. Uranium-series isotope relationship of the calcite revealed it was not less than 45,500 years outdated — making it the world’s oldest human cave artwork found to date. 

This revelation was stunning as a result of researchers have beforehand discovered most historic cave artwork in Europe. Websites like France’s 30,000-year outdated Chauvet Cave are well-known for his or her overlapping horses, teams of rhinos and different bunches of animals. Lately, Aubert and different archeologists have turned again the clock on the beginnings of human artwork, with a lot of excessive profile discoveries in Indonesia inside current a long time.  

As soon as it’s discovered, although, decoding cave drawings could be difficult as a result of it’s inconceivable to get into the minds of the unique artists. However researchers have proposed a lot of explanatory theories, together with every little thing from the event of early storytelling to the roots of spirituality. Courting the artwork may also reveal a timeline of our ancestors’ early cultural growth, one of many key traits that later allowed our species to succeed. “Rock artwork is an intimate window into the previous,” Aubert says.  

Doodles or Historic Narrative? 

It’s troublesome to find out the importance of early cave artwork: We are able to’t get into the heads of the individuals who made it, and so they aren’t round to inform us.   

Some proof exhibits that Neanderthals could have drawn hand stencils in Spanish caves from about 65,000 years in the past, although Aubert says this relationship is disputed, and could also be a lot youthful and never from Neanderthals in any respect. And the oldest identified zigzag-shaped doodle could not have come from fashionable people however our ancestors, Homo erectus, on a mussel shell some 500,000 years in the past. However what precisely constitutes artwork stays an open query.  

“The reply might be, within the earliest artwork, individuals didn’t know what they had been doing,” says Iain Davidson, a retired professor of archaeology on the College of New England in Australia. 

Many of the historic sketches in each Europe and Indonesia contain massive mammals or hand stencils. The previous could have represented among the species that folks hunted, however a lot of the opposite prey animals present in archaeological deposits weren’t included in these photos. Due to this fact, these particular shapes could have been necessary in some non secular sense, Aubert says. Additionally, the handprints may have been a method that folks as soon as recognized themselves.


It isn’t till about 20,000 years in the past, on the peak of the final glacial most, that people popped up extra in work. Whereas it’s unclear why, Aubert says that there will need to have been a worldwide driver for this, probably involving local weather change.  

The primary narrative scene could have arrived with ​Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4, a cave found in 2017 that Aubert has since studied. Additionally situated in Sulawesi, this artwork is not less than 43,900 years outdated and exhibits a sequence of hybridized animal-human figures searching pigs. “It’s the primary proof of storytelling,” Aubert says. “The narrative scene was particular as a result of I’ve by no means seen something prefer it.” 

He compares this to different early anthropomorphic figures, comparable to the lion man ivory carving determine relationship again between 35,000 and 40,000 years in the past that was discovered within the Hohlenstein-Stadel collapse Germany. This exhibits us that the artists weren’t solely telling tales at the moment, however conceiving issues that didn’t truly exist in the true world. “That’s the foundation of non secular pondering,” Aubert says.  

Some researchers declare that these hybrid animal-human figures characterize shamanistic beliefs. However Davidson believes you possibly can’t use such a broad brushstroke when inspecting anthropomorphic drawings, and never all issues needs to be fairly so generalized. To him, figures just like the lion carving may characterize rituals, like individuals dressing up as animals whereas searching. Nonetheless, he says, it’s troublesome to say for sure.  

Extra To Uncover? 

Usually, there are two methods of excited about the unfold of cave artwork. One is that it began in a single area and progressively unfold to different continents. If the present discoveries characterize the precise oldest variations, it could imply that cave artwork originated in Indonesia not less than 45,000 years in the past, then discovered its method towards Europe over the following 10,000 years.  

In distinction, some archeologists suppose cave artwork could have independently developed in a number of areas concurrently. Davidson subscribes to this perception, suggesting that the varied traditions developed in Indonesia and France with none connection. And there’s seemingly much more on the market to uncover, he says. 

After the invention of Altamira Collapse Spain within the late 1800s, researchers fixated on European cave artwork. Previously century or so, France specifically has acquired a major quantity of consideration. “We are inclined to put an excessive amount of emphasis within the French caves,” Davidson says. “There are 120 of them—it’s not an enormous quantity given the size of time individuals have been on the lookout for them.”  

The Indonesian caves, nonetheless, had been comparatively new revelations. Since Aubert and his colleagues solely dated calcite that fashioned on high of the artwork quite than the ochre itself, the work themselves could be a lot older. We all know that fashionable people arrived in Australia round 65,000 years in the past, and that they seemingly got here by Indonesia (after spreading from Africa by the Center East). It’s doable that cave artwork developed alongside the way in which, or that earlier samples in Africa haven’t survived — or have but to be discovered.  

To date, only some uncovered etchings date considerably far again in Africa, together with the Apollo 11 Collapse Namibia that incorporates some slabs with animal drawings from 30,000 years in the past. However there could possibly be loads others on the market. African caves need to be taken significantly, Davidson says.  


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