World’s Oldest Figurative Art Found in Indonesian Cave

Dating back over 51,000 years, the scene of human figures pursuing a pig is the earliest known example of figurative painting.

Jul 4, 2024By Emily Snow, MA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial Studies
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The 51,200-year-old cave painting. Source: Indonesian National Research and Innovation Agency.

 

Deep inside a cave on Indonesia’s Sulawesi island is a painting of three human figures in pursuit of a wild pig. According to new research published in Nature on July 3, the picture dates back 51,200 years, making it the world’s earliest known example of figurative art.

 

Prehistoric Pig Painting May Tell the Oldest Human Story

The cave art depicts a trio of humans and a pig. Source: Nature.

 

A team of Indonesian and Australian researchers discovered the cave painting inside the Leang Karampuang cave, located in south Sulawesi, Indonesia. About 51,200 years ago, prehistoric people painted a trio of human figures and a wild pig—possibly engaged in a hunt—on the limestone cave ceiling in red pigment. The big red pig, measuring about 36 by 15 inches, dominates the scene. Thousands of years ago, flickering torchlight inside the dark, craggy cave would have seemingly brought the static story to life.

 

“This narrative composition, which depicts human-like figures interacting with a pig, is now the earliest known surviving example of representational art, and visual storytelling, in the world,” explains the Nature study. “Our findings show that figurative portrayals of anthropomorphic figures and animals have a deeper origin in the history of modern human (Homo sapiens) image-making than recognized to date.”

 

New Laser Technology Dated the Cave Paintings

Figures of dated cave art. Source: Nature.

 

In limestone caves such as the Leang Karampuang cave, a calcium carbonate crust forms naturally over time on surfaces. The radioactive decay of elements within the crystalized crust can be used to determine the minimum age of a cave painting that lies beneath it. Conventional dating methods involve extracting and crushing a sample of rock, which is chemically tested to ascertain the age of the layers. For this study, however, the research team took a new approach. They employed a thin laser beam—about half the width of a human hair—to map individual calcium carbonate layers and determine the minimum age of the base layer. Requiring no chemical preparation or destructive rock extraction, the laser technique proved more precise, efficient, and cost-effective than other methods.

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Cave Art in Indonesia

Leang Karampuang cave is located at Karampuang Hill in south Sulawesi, Indonesia. Source: CNN.

 

The research team expects to find more, possibly even older, art in Indonesia’s limestone caves. Hundreds of cave excavations have been conducted in the region so far. Tens of thousands of years’ worth of figurative paintings, including several portrayals of pigs, have been found in the Leang Karampuang cave alone. The new discovery of a 51,200-year-old painting “drives home the point that Europe was not the birthplace of cave art, as had long been assumed,” said Adam Brumm, an archaeologist who coauthored the Nature study. The earliest known examples of Indonesian cave art are much older than Europe’s more famous counterparts, including the 20,000-year-old Lascaux cave paintings in France.

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By Emily SnowMA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial StudiesEmily Snow is a contributing writer and art historian based in Amsterdam. She earned an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art and loves knitting, her calico cat, and everything Victorian.