People mastered the art of making drawings depicting the world around them at least 45,500 years ago when anonymous artists portrayed a wild pig on the walls of an Indonesian cave.
The find, which came from the island of Sulawesi, completely disproves the idea that artistic manifestations of this kind began in Europe during the Ice Age, as was long believed. Wild horses, bison, reindeer and rhinos, painted by ancient Europeans, did not appear on the continent’s stone walls until much later, between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago.
“Our discovery in no way diminishes the majesty and beauty of rock art in France and Spain. All prehistoric rock art forms are special in my opinion. However, our work suggests that these traditions were likely developed by our species earlier, perhaps somewhere in Asia or more in Africa, where Homo sapiens evolved, ”says Adam Brumm, Professor of Archeology at Griffith University , Australia.
Brumm, along with colleagues from other Australian and Indonesian institutions, is the author of the study of Sulawesi’s paintings, which will be published in this week’s issue of Science Advances.
“Pinturas” in the plural because the same stone wall on which the 45,500-year-old pig also houses drawings that have already faded from other animals, and another limestone shelter the team explored, even more of a wild pig, revealed the outline of human hands with ocher pigment in different shades (in both places).
Both the geographical location and the age of the finding make sense, as the expansion of the modern anatomy of the African continent, as far as is known, is advancing faster to the east (to Asia and the Pacific) than to the east (towards Europe).
About 100,000 years ago, shortly before this expansion began, there were signs of art and symbolic behavior in the groups of Homo sapiens – body earrings such as necklaces made with shells and pieces of stone decorated with geometric doodles. But the leap to so-called figurative art was still missing – that is, attempts to depict living or real objects or beings, real or imaginary.
The pig figures from the Leang Tedongnge and Leang Balangajia caves finally make this imaginative leap. The stars in the drawings, which are between 1.5 m and 2 m long, are pigs of the species Sus celebensis, members of the same genus as domestic pigs and their ancestors, wild boars.
The artists seem to have paid great attention to anatomical details in the depiction, such as the bristle-like hair that forms a kind of mane and the lumps in the face area of the animals that motivated one of their popular names: warthogs (see infographic). Although the sex organs do not appear in the picture, the general anatomy of the animals suggests that the artists attempted to draw adult men, the researchers say.
The dating of 45.5 thousand is considered the minimum age, that is, the painting can be even older. What happens is that the researchers used the chemical makeup of a piece of limestone that formed over the picture (i.e. after it was drawn) to estimate the antiquity of the drawing. Since the method involves the conversion of radioactive chemical elements, which occurs at a known rate, it is unlikely that the age has been overestimated.
For Brumm, the findings are far from over. “I think it is very likely that somewhere in the many parts of the world that our species lived in during their epic journey from Africa, much older forms of rock art exist.”