Oldest known cave painting found in Indonesia

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
December 23, 2023

A prehistoric drawing of a life-sized wild pig has been determined to be at least 45,500 years old, experts said in an article published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.

An Indonesian doctoral student, Basran Burhan, made the discovery as part of surveys his team was carrying out with Indonesian officials in the island of Sulawesi in 2017, experts of the Griffith University, who worked with Indonesian archaeologists from Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (ARKENAS), stated on their website.

Oldest known work of art

“The Sulawesi warty pig painting we found in the Limestone cave of Leang Tedongnge is now the earliest known representational work of art in the world, as far as [we] are aware,” Adam Brumm, from Griffith University’s Australian Research Center for Human Evolution and co-leader of the team that made the discovery, said.

The Sulawesi warty pig is 136 centimeters wide and 54 centimeters tall (53.5 x 21 inches). It has a short crest of upright hair and a pair of horn-like facial warts, typical for adult males of the species. Dark red ocher pigment has been used to paint it, researchers said.

There are two handprints above the pig’s back and it appears to be facing two other pigs that can only be faintly seen. Scientists believe the artists would have had to place their hands on a surface and then spit pigment over it. These prints could contain residual DNA, providing new insights into human beings at the time.

According to Brumm, “The pig appears to be observing a fight or social interaction between two other warty pigs.”

The Leang Tedongnge cave, where the painting was found, is surrounded by limestone cliffs. The area is about an hour’s walk from the nearest road and is accessible only during the dry season. Members of the Bugis community, who live in the area, told Brumm that outsiders had never seen it before.

Ice Age companions

“Humans have hunted Sulawesi warty pigs for thousands of years,” said Burhan, whose team discovered the painting. The beasts also feature in artworks created during the Ice Age.

Archaeologists identified a calcite deposit, known as “cave popcorn” in expert parlance, formed on the top of the painting, and used Uranium-series isotope dating to confirm that it was 45,500 years old. However, dating expert Maxime Aubert said, “the painting could be much older because the dating that we’re using only dates the calcite on top of it.”

“The people who made it were fully modern, they were just like us, they had all of the capacity and the tools to do any painting that they liked,” she added.

The oldest-known cave painting before the discovery of the pig was also found in Sulawesi by the same team. It showed part-human part-animal figures hunting and was around 43,900 years old.

Cave paintings such as these could provide important insights about human migration during the time, experts say, especially since it is unknown how humans reached the Australian continent 65,000 years ago.

“Our species must have crossed through Wallacea by watercraft,” Aubert said, referring to the Indonesian islands. “However, the Wallacean islands are poorly explored and presently the earliest excavated archaeological evidence from this region is much younger in age.”