An international team of archaeologists have uncovered the oldest known rock painting in the world: a life-size image of a wild boar, taken at least 45,500 years ago in Indonesia.
The discovery is described in Wednesday’s edition of the journal Science Advances, and also provides the oldest evidence of a 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 54cm high and 1 min 36 s 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. All giving the impression of representing a narrative scene.
“The pig appears to be observing a fight or social interaction between two other wild boars,” said another 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 the calcite on top”, explained the researcher.
“The people who made it were completely modern, they were like us, they had all the skills and tools to do 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 depicted a group of half-human, half-animal characters hunting mammals, and was found to be at least 43,900 years old.
Cave frescoes like these also help fill in the gaps in our knowledge of ancient human migrations.
Populations are known to have reached Australia nearly 65,000 years ago, and they probably first crossed the eastern Indonesian archipelago Wallacea, of which Sulawesi is a part.
The archaeological site now represents the oldest evidence of human presence in Wallacea, but researchers hope that further excavation will show that tribes were present in the region long before, helping to solve the mystery of the settlement of Australia. .
The team also believe that the painting was done by Homo sapiens, and not by now extinct human species like the Denisovans, but 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.