Life Science The world’s most ancient cave painting, maybe: It’s a 45,500-year-old pig
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The world’s most ancient cave painting, maybe: It’s a 45,500-year-old pig

The Sulawesi warty pig painting is now the earliest known representational work of art in the world, archaeologists say. Photo: Griffith University
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Australian and Indonesian archaeologists have discovered what “may be the world’s oldest known cave painting”, dating back to at least 45,500 years ago – that of a Sulawesi warty pig.

“The world’s oldest surviving representational image of an animal,” the researchers claim in a newly-published open access paper.

The authors suggest the painting “may also constitute the most ancient figurative artwork known to archaeology.”

But as it goes with anything archaeological – and the art world – there are big questions, even controversy attached to the discovery, which further upends the idea that representative art began in Europe.

What kind of human painted the pig?

According to a report in The New York Times, some experts question whether or not the painting was made by modern humans – as the Griffith University archaeologists claim.

“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,” team co-leader Professor Maxime Aubert told Agence France Presse.

The rock art sites under study are all situated in limestone karst areas in the island’s southwestern peninsula. “1,” indicates the Leang Tedongnge cave where the ancient pig painting was found. It’s located in a remote valley enclosed by sheer limestone cliffs, about an hour’s walk from the nearest road. Maps: M. Kottermair and A. Jalandoni.

There are symbolic paintings in Spanish caves that have been dated to 66,000 years and said to be made by Neanderthals. There’s also a debate going on about red markings in a South African cave being the world’s first drawings. They’re said to be 73,000 years old.

What’s been discovered on Sulawesi appear to be almost as sophisticated (in shading, for example) as the famous cave paintings in France that are said to be 20,000 years old

As Professor Aubert has reportedly said, according to Artnet, “it depends on what definition of ‘art’ you use.”

Initial discovery was made by a student

The Sulawesi warty pig painting, dated to at least 45,500 years ago, is part of a rock art panel located above a high ledge along the rear wall of Leang Tedongnge.

“It shows a pig with a short crest of upright hairs and a pair of horn-like facial warts in front of the eyes, a characteristic feature of adult male Sulawesi warty pigs,” said Professor Adam Brumm from the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, in a prepared statement.

Not so pretty or refined as the famous paintings in the Lascaux Cave, the Sulawesi swine nevertheless demonstrates a command of form and shading. Photo: Adhi Agus Oktaviana

“Painted using red ochre pigment, the pig appears to be observing a fight or social interaction between two other warty pigs”.

The painting was uncovered in 2017 by Basran Burhan, an Indonesian archaeologist from southern Sulawesi and current Griffith PhD student, who led the survey.

“Humans have hunted Sulawesi warty pigs for tens of thousands of years,” said Mr Burhan.

Dating the painting from uranium deposits

To calculate the age of the painting, Professor Aubert used a technique called uranium-series dating.

It works like this: Some of the painting was covered by a calcite mineral crust that was created by water dripping down the cave walls. This mineral formation contains uranium.

Based on how much of the uranium has decayed, scientists calculate a a minimum date for the painting. If the calculations are correct, then the painting is at least 45,500 years old.

Professor Aubert, a dating specialist from the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, said:

“Rock art is very challenging to date. “However, rock art produced in limestone caves can sometimes be dated using uranium-series analysis of calcium carbonate deposits (‘cave popcorn’) that form naturally on the cave wall surface used as a ‘canvas’ for the art.

“At Leang Tedongnge, a small cave popcorn had formed on the rear foot of one of the pig figures after it had been painted, so when dated, it provided us with a minimum age for the painting.”

A second Sulawesi warty pig image, from Leang Balangajia 1, another cave in the region, was dated to at least 32,000 years ago using the uranium-series method.

Early and rare example of story-telling

The researchers say that recognisable scenes that tell a story “are especially uncommon in early cave art.”

The previously oldest dated rock art ‘scene’, at least 43,900 years old, “was a depiction of hybrid human-animal beings hunting Sulawesi warty pigs and dwarf bovids.”

The discovery, made by the same research team at a nearby limestone cave site, was was ranked by the journal Science as one of the top-10 scientific breakthroughs of 2020.

The Griffith team expects that “future research in eastern Indonesia will lead to the discovery of much older rock art and other archaeological evidence, dating back at least 65,000 years and possibly earlier.”

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