More than 45,000 years ago, ancient artists scrawled a detailed image of a wild pig on a cave wall in Indonesia. Researchers now believe it’s the world’s oldest cave painting, as well as the earliest known surviving depiction of the animal world.
A team from Australia’s Griffith University found the remarkably well-preserved image in the limestone karsts of Sulawesi, an Indonesian island east of Borneo. The image depicts a life-size suid — four legs, tail, snout, ears, bristles, face warts and all — in red and purplish pigment made from pulverized ochre mixed with liquid. Above the pig’s rotund rear end, two stenciled human handprints appear, one left and one right, possibly left there as a kind of signature from the Sulawesi creatives.
“These ice age people from Sulawesi were skilled and talented artists with a highly developed knowledge of the behavioral ecology and social lives of the wild pig species depicted in this newly dated artwork,” Adam Brumm, a professor of archaeology at Australia’s Griffith University, told me. He’s also co-author of a study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances that details research into the the origin of the painting, as well another one found nearby that dates back 32,000 years.
The older of the two drawings measures 136 centimeters by 54 centimeters (about 4.5 feet by 1.7 feet). It appears to show the Sus celebensis, or Sulawesi warty pig, engaged in some sort of social interaction with two other pigs (a fight? a mating ritual?), though erosion has made it harder to determine exactly what’s going on in the suid scene. It’s also hard to tell whether the other two animals were drawn at the same time as the better-preserved pig.
A team from Griffith discovered the drawing in the back of a cave known as Leang Tedongnge while surveying Sulawesi in 2017. To determine its age, they used a technique called uranium-series dating to analyze a calcite deposit that formed over part of the image. The mineral formation is at least 45,500 years old, meaning the artwork itself could be even older.
The past several years have brought other exciting discoveries of ancient drawings, though nonfigurative, including one found in South Africa from 73,000 years ago that resembles a hashtag and another from between 2100 and 4100 BC that may show humans’ wonder at a stellar explosion.
The Sulawesi find is figurative, however, and captures in stunning detail a creature key to life for the island’s long-ago inhabitants.
“The hunting economy of these people largely revolved around warty pigs for tens of thousands of years and most of the surviving images of animals we find in the rock art are also of these pigs,” Brumm said. “You could call it a kind of ancient ‘pig love’ that is a defining characteristic of early human culture on this island.”