Some 44,000 years ago, an artist climbed high onto a cave ledge on an Indonesian island, paintbrush in hand. Perhaps inspired by spiritual visions, the artist sketched a dynamic scene featuring tiny, animal-headed hunters armed with spears cornering formidable wild hogs and small buffaloes. In a new study, researchers argue that the scene's visionary storytelling—which they claim represents the oldest known figurative art made by modern humans—shows that people already had imaginations much like our own at the time of the cave painting, and likely much earlier.
"We think of the ability for humans to make a story, a narrative scene, as one of the last steps of human cognition," says the study's lead author, Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Nathan, Australia. "This is the oldest rock art in the world and all of the key aspects of modern cognition are there."
For the past 5 years, Aubert and colleagues have been exploring dozens of caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and have turned up hundreds of hand stencils, cave paintings, red pigment crayons, and carved figurines. Archaeological data suggest the artists came with an early wave of modern humans some 50,000 years ago. (Modern Sulawesians hail from successive waves of Australasian populations that began to arrive much later, between 3500 and 4000 years ago.)
In 2017, co-author Pak Hamrullah, an Indonesian archaeologist and caver, noticed a small opening in the ceiling of a previously explored limestone cave. Scrambling up a fig tree vine, he found his way into a small grotto. Its far wall bore a panel, painted with a red ocher pigment. When Aubert saw it, he was astounded.
"I thought, ‘Wow, it's like a whole scene,’" he says. "You've got humans, or maybe half-human half-animals, hunting or capturing these animals … it was just amazing."
The hunted animals appear to be the Sulawesi warty pig and a small horned bovine called an anoa, or dwarf buffalo, both of which still live on the island. But it was the animallike features of the eight hunters, armed with spears or ropes, that captivated Aubert. Several appear to have elongated muzzles or snouts. One seems to possess a tail, while another's mouth resembles a bird beak.
The features could depict masks or other camouflage, but the researchers argue that dressing like small animals would be a poor disguise for hunters. More likely, the figures represent mythical animal-human hybrids, Aubert says. Such hybrids feature in several instances of early artwork, including a 35,000-year-old ivory figurine of a lion-man found in the German Alps.
To date the Sulawesi cave painting, Aubert carefully pried out a few centimeter-wide shards from the painted cave wall—avoiding the figures and trying to do as little damage as possible—and brought the shards back to his lab. Over the years, as rainwater trickled through the cave's porous limestone and seeped down its walls, it left small mineral deposits called cave popcorn on top of the paint. The popcorn holds trace amounts of uranium, which over time decays into thorium at a fixed rate. By analyzing the ratio of uranium to thorium in the mineral layer directly on top of the pigment, the researchers calculated the painting's minimum age: 44,000 years old, they report this week in Nature.
That would make the cave scene at least 4000 years older than other instances of figurative ancient rock art found in Indonesia and Europe, and some 20,000 years older than the oldest depictions of hunting scenes in Europe. In 2018, scientists dated some examples of disks and abstract designs from caves in Spain to 65,000 years ago, but these were attributed to Neanderthals, and some scientists have challenged the dating.
The ability to imagine beings that don't exist is a critical cognitive milestone, Aubert says, and forms the roots of religion and spirituality. Seeing this ability fully formed 44,000 years ago in Sulawesi suggests it was probably already present in the early modern humans who left Africa and populated the rest of the world.
Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany who wasn't involved in the work, says that scenario makes sense given that every modern human society has its own creative and mythic traditions. "These depictions underline the great antiquity of narratives and storytelling," he says. "It is encouraging to find concrete evidence for narrative depictions at this early date."
The findings should also help dispel the outdated and mistaken notion that humanity first became fully modern in Europe, adds April Nowell, an archaeologist at the University of Victoria in Canada. "We have long known this view is no longer tenable, and the richness of [this and other recent findings] continues to underscore … the importance of the record outside Europe."