A rock painting discovered by archaeologists in 2017 on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia is the oldest known in the world: this life-size image of a wild boar was taken at least 45,500 years ago, according to the dating performed. The discovery, described in the Wednesday, January 13 edition of the journal Science Advances, also provides the oldest evidence of human presence in the region.
A co-author of the article, Maxime Aubert, of Griffith University in Australia, told AFP that the painting was discovered on the island of Sulawesi in 2017 by Basran Burhan, a doctoral student, in the part of archaeological excavations that the team was carrying out with the Indonesian authorities.
Leang Tedongnge Cave is located in a secluded valley surrounded by sheer limestone cliffs, and about an hour’s walk from the nearest road. It is only accessible during the dry season, due to flooding during the rainy season. Members of the isolated Bugis community told the team that this was the first time Westerners had accessed it.
Measuring 54 cm high and 1.36 m wide, this painting of a Celebes boar was made using a dark red ocher pigment. The boar is depicted with a short mane of erect hairs, as well as a pair of facial growths resembling tusks, typical of adult males of the species.
Two outlines of hands are visible above the rear part of the pig and appear to be facing two other wild boars which have only been partially preserved. It all looks like a narrative scene. “The pig seems to observe a fight or a social interaction between two other wild boars”said fellow co-author Adam Brumm.
Hominids hunted Celebes boars on the island of Sulawesi for tens of thousands of years, and the latter are often depicted in the region’s prehistoric art, particularly that of the Ice Age.
Dating specialist Maxime Aubert identified a deposit of calcite that formed above the fresco, then used a uranium dating method to claim that the deposit was 45,500 years old. The fresco is therefore at least as old “but it could be much older because the dating we use only dates calcite” and not the painting itself, explained the researcher.
“The people who made it were completely modern, they were like us, they had all the skills and tools to make any painting they wanted.”, he added.
Before this, the oldest known rock painting had been discovered by the same team, also on the island of Sulawesi. It represented a group of half-human, half-animal figures hunting mammals, and was found to be at least 43,900 years old. By way of comparison, in France the paintings of Lascaux are dated to nearly 20,000 years and those of the Chauvet cave to around 35,000.
Cave frescoes like these fill in the gaps in our knowledge of ancient human migrations. Populations are known to have reached Australia nearly 65,000 years ago, and may have previously crossed the eastern Indonesian archipelago of Wallacea, of which Sulawesi is a part.
The archaeological site now represents the oldest evidence of human presence at Wallacea, but researchers hope that further excavation will show that settlements were present in the area long before, and thus solve the mystery of the settlement of the Australia.
The team believe the painting was done by Homo sapiens, and not by now extinct human species like the Denisovans, but they cannot say for sure.
To make the hand outlines, prehistoric artists had to place their hands on the rock surface before spitting pigments over it. The team hopes to be able to extract DNA samples from leftover saliva.