The paintings of three pigs, alongside several hand stencils, were discovered in the limestone cave of Leang Tedongnge on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Even local people were unaware of the cave sites’ existence until their discovery in 2017 by Adam Brumm at Griffith University, Australia, and his team.
“I was struck dumb,” says Brumm. “It’s one of the most spectacular and well-preserved figurative animal paintings known from the whole region and it just immediately blew me away.”
Brumm and his colleagues used a technique called uranium-series dating to analyse a mineral formation that overlapped part of the image, and that must have formed after the cave art was produced. The mineral formation is at least 45,500 years old, suggesting the artwork itself could be much older.
“It adds to the evidence that the first modern human cave art traditions did not arise in ice age Europe, as long assumed, but at an earlier point in the human journey,” says Brumm.
Each of the three pigs is more than a metre long. The images were all painted using a red ochre pigment. They appear to be Sulawesi warty pigs (Sus celebensis), a short-legged wild boar that is endemic to the island and is characterised by its distinctive facial warts. “This species was of great importance to early hunter-gatherers in Sulawesi,” says Brumm.
These pigs appear in younger cave art across the region, and archaeological digs show that they were the most commonly hunted game species on Sulawesi for thousands of years. “The frequent portrayal of these wild pigs in art offers hints at a long-term human interest in the behavioural ecology of this local species, and perhaps its spiritual values in the hunting culture,” says Brumm.
Paul Pettitt at Durham University, UK, agrees that the discovery adds to evidence of human presence in the islands of south-east Asia. Early humans presumably crossed these islands to reach Australia – perhaps as early as 65,000 years ago – after migrating out of Africa.
But Pettitt says: “Given the insufficient amount of human fossils in the region at this time, we cannot, of course, rule out authorship by another human species, like the Neanderthals [that] were producing non-figurative art in Europe.”
Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd4648
More on these topics: