A nearly 44,000-year-old hunting scene is the oldest known storytelling art
The panel was found in an island cave in Indonesia
Abstract cave art generally attributed to H. sapiens dates to at least 40,800 years ago in Europe (SN: 6/14/12). In other Sulawesi caves studied by Aubert and Brumm, wall stencils that Stone Age people made by blowing or spraying pigment around outstretched hands date to around 40,000 years ago (SN: 10/8/14). Researchers had reported evidence of European Neandertals creating abstract cave art at least 65,000 years ago, but those reports have come under fire (SN: 10/28/19).
Measures of radioactive uranium’s decay in mineral layers that formed over parts of the Sulawesi hunting depiction provided minimum age estimates ranging from 35,100 to 43,900 years. The oldest mineral layer comes closest to the painting’s actual age, the researchers say.
If confirmed in further research, that age estimate makes sense, says archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany. Art, music, religion and language characterize modern human groups worldwide, and the same would have held for Stone Age groups, asserts Conard, who directed excavations of the ancient figurines and flutes in Germany.
Curiously, proposed human-animal figures in the Sulawesi hunting scene are quite small relative to the pig and anoa images, Conard says. That may be because ancient artists depicted these therianthropes as flying. In the stories and personal accounts of people from modern foraging groups, “movements through spirit worlds are often via flight rather than walking or running,” he says.
Figurative paintings in several other Sulawesi caves have been found but not yet dated, Brumm says. Nearly all these artworks, including the hunting scene, have deteriorated substantially. “We urgently need to determine why this art is disappearing and what to do about it.”