Inside a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, scientists have found one of the oldest known artistic representations of a real-world object or organism. It is a painting of a warty pig, an animal still found in Sulawesi, which was depicted on the back wall of the cave at least 45,500 years ago, researchers reported on Jan. 13 in Science Advances.
The discovery adds to evidence that "the first modern traditions of human rock art did not emerge in Ice Age Europe, as has long been assumed, but perhaps earlier in Asia or even Africa, where our species evolved," he says. the author of the study Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.
On the wall of the cave appear at least two, and possibly three, other paintings of pigs partially preserved near the newly dated figure. All the pigs painted in Sulawesi Cave appear to be facing off in a scene of some sort, says archaeologist Iain Davidson of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia. Davidson, who did not participate in the new study, features painted animals of similar positioning dating back to about 30,000 years ago or more in scenes from France’s Chauvet Cave.
On the roof of a small chamber in another Sulawesi cave, researchers found a large painting of pigs, like the others, executed in dark red or purple and red mineral pigments, dating from between 32,000 and 73,400 years ago. At least two other poorly preserved unidentified animal paintings are on the ceiling and wall of the chamber.
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The team considers it likely that Homo sapiens, instead of a closely related species such as Homo floresiensis (SN: 6/8/16), is painted on the walls of Sulawesi caves.
As a hunting scene painted at least 43,900 years ago previously found in a separate cave in Sulawesi (SN: 12/11/19), the estimated minimum age for pig paints is based on measurements of the decay of radioactive uranium into mineral growths similar to cauliflower which formed in thin layers above and below the parts of the representations.
Uranium-based dating of ancient rock art has attracted criticism (SN: 10/28/19). For example, Brumm’s group dated three mineral layers that partially covered one of the pig paints to estimate their minimum age. The layer closest to the paint was slightly younger than the two layers placed on it, the opposite of what would be expected if the layers formed one after the other. These tumultuous dates raise doubts about the accuracy of the minimum age of the painting, says archaeologist João Zilhão, of the University of Barcelona.
A mixture of slightly larger and smaller age estimates can result from gaps that form in successive mineral layers, Brumm’s team says. The researchers argue that averaging multilayer dates provides a reasonable and possibly discrete minimum age estimate for the underlying art.
Ultimately, rock art such as pigs on the islands of Southeast Asia and Australia, and probably also Sulawesi, can be shown to date about 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, says archaeologist Peter Veth of the University of Western Australia in Perth. . It was then that H. sapiens first settled the region, probably bringing with it traditions of continental rock art rather than suddenly inventing the practice on isolated islands, he suggests.