They find the first work of art of mankind, 45,000 years old

  • The oldest figurative paintings of humanity discovered in Indonesia, at least 45,500 years old

  • His find would reaffirm Southeast Asia as the cradle of figurative art

Tens of thousands of years ago, an anonymous artist found a canvas to paint on in a remote cave on the island of Sulawesi (Indonesia). In his hands, a primitive mixture of reddish pigments began to stain the limestone walls of the grotto. Outline three wild boars large and, next to it, he added the imprint of his hands. Creation, safeguarded for at least 45,500 years, comes to light now as the oldest work of art of mankind and the closeup portrait of an animal of which there is evidence to date.

The finding is reminiscent of the news story that a little over a year ago made up practically the same headline; the discovery of a hunting scene painted about 43,900 years ago and which was also found on the Indonesian island. Very close to there, years before it had also been found another rock work dated around 39,000 years. And a handful of kilometers away, the nearby island of Borneo recently unveiled that it preserved an impressive mural that is at least 40,000 years old. The badge of ‘the oldest work of art of mankind‘Well, it goes backwards little by little in time. Of course, it seems that the award stays in the same lands.

“The news is not so much the discovery of the oldest work, but the consolidation of the south west asia as the cradle of figurative art“reflects the archaeologist Diego Garate Maidagan, specialist in cave art at the International Institute for Prehistoric Research of Cantabria. “A few years ago it was unthinkable to find such ancient cave paintings in that area because it was believed that the oldest works were in Europe. The findings of recent years, however, are making blow up the Eurocentric theory of the origin of art“, says the researcher.

Warty boars, muses of prehistory

Only on the island of Sulawesi, in fact, they have already been found more than 300 caves with samples of rock art. At least 73 representations of wild boars and pigs have been identified on its walls (80% of the total number of animals drawn). The undisputed protagonist of these works is the Celebes warthog; a native animal with short legs, a bulging belly and weighing between 40 and 85 kilos that has survived from prehistory to the present day.

He oldest pig portrait found to date (the same one that heads these lines and that this same Wednesday announces ‘Science Advances’ magazine) was discovered in 2018, but it has not been until now that its age has been investigated. Uranium-thorium dating tests indicate a minimum age of 45,500 years. Although, since what is measured is the calcification that sprouts on the work and not the paintings themselves, it could be that these works were even older.

This find is extraordinary, but you have to read it critically. The panorama of cave art, as well as the precision of dating, evolve based on the knowledge we have “, he highlights Ramon Viñas, archaeologist of symbolic behavior and specialist in rock art. “In the race to find the oldest paintings influences, above all, the investment made in discovering and analyzing the works. The cave paintings of Chauvet (France), for example, were discovered in 1976 and their antiquity is still disputed today, “he adds.

The complex art of painting pigs; Human inheritance?

The discovery of this primitive work of rock art, in which wild boars serve as muses, opens up an infinity of interesting debates. As what should these animals represent. The researchers responsible for their study suggest that the three swine could be part of the same scene. “Maybe one representation of social interaction among warty boars “, suggests the study led by Adam Brumm, Adhi Agust Oktaviana and Maxime Aubert.

“The find is extraordinary, but, without detracting from the work, I don’t think these paintings have a narrative,” he reflects Marco Garcia Diez, professor of prehistory at the Complutense University of Madrid. “The work shows that we are before a figurative art with some complexity. The animals are painted following the outline, but also with interior lines to show their mass “, adds the expert consulted by this newspaper.

A quick glance at a modern illustration of these animals shows that their prehistoric portrait was more than spot on. It’s more. His silhouette is so successful that everything indicates that behind each brushstroke there was an intention. An idea. A thinking mind. So much so that the debate opens about who had to be his artist. The dates suggest that very it was probably the work of modern humans (or ‘sapiens’, whatever you want to call us) who arrived in the region. Although with almost 50,000 years of difference it is impossible to scrutinize in his the species of an author of which there are no traces.

The artistic concerns of prehistory

In the open questions chapter there is one that continues to provoke great debates today. Why did the first artists of mankind paint animals and hands and not, for example, plants and faces? “This is the big question,” Garate Maidagan responds. According to the expert, the vast majority of Rock works show imposing animals, people in a position to hunt and some other geometric motif. The flora and fauna of habitual consumption, however, hardly appear. “We cannot know for sure, but it seems that behind this selection there is some kind of convention established by the society of the moment,” says the archaeologist. “The paintings found in Indonesia, for example, they seem to show a common artistic style. There is a coherence. Same animals, same techniques, negative hands … “, he adds.

The origin of art also tells us about the journey of the first ‘sapiens’. How our brain has evolved. And ultimately, who we are as a species

Ramón Viñas, specialist in rock art

The ride on the fascinating world of rock art allows you to dive into endless questions. More if we take into account that we only see a small sample of the creation that our ancestors forged in their day. “We only see the art that has been preserved. But who knows, perhaps the first ‘sapiens’ made even more spectacular works that have not stood the test of time “, reflects Viñas, also a collaborator of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology (IPHES).”The origin of art as well He tells us about the journey of the first ‘sapiens’. How our brain has evolved. And ultimately, who are we as a species“, adds the expert.

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