Technology & Science

This ancient cave art is the oldest known 'storytelling'

A cave painting found on Indonesia's island of Sulawesi, depicting human-like figures hunting animals, appears to be the earliest known pictorial record of storytelling.

Art found in Indonesia shows humans with animal characteristics hunting animals with spears and ropes

Six human figures with animal characteristics confront an animal called an anoa in a cave painting in Indonesia dating back to nearly 44,000 years. It's believed to be the oldest record of storytelling in the world. (Indonesia's National Research Centre for Archaeology/Griffith University/Handout via Reuters)
A cave painting found on Indonesia's island of Sulawesi, depicting human-like figures hunting animals, appears to be the earliest known pictorial record of storytelling, according to a study by a team of Australian and Indonesian researchers.

The painting, found in a limestone cave in 2017, was dated to nearly 44,000 years ago using uranium-series analysis, they said in the study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

It shows eight therianthropes, or humans with animal characteristics, appearing to chase and kill six animals such as the warty pigs native to the island, using what seem to be spears and ropes.

"The portrayal of multiple hunters confronting at least two separate prey species possibly suggests a game drive, a communal hunt in which animals are indiscriminately flushed from cover and directed towards waiting hunters," the researchers said.

This is an anoa, one of the animals depicted in the painting, which is still found on the island today. (A. Brumm/Griffifth University)

Until now, the oldest rock art showing a character with the characteristics of an animal had been an ivory sculpture found in a cave in Germany. Thought to date back 40,000 years, it depicts a human body attached to a feline-like head.

The Indonesian cave painting also provided some of the earliest evidence of human spirituality, said one of the study's co-authors, Adam Brumm, an archeologist at Australia's Griffith University.

"Therianthropes occur in the folklore or narrative fiction of almost every modern society, and they are perceived as gods, spirits, or ancestral beings in many religions worldwide," he said in a statement.

Closeup of one of the human-animal hunters in the painting. The arrow points to its tail. (A. Brumm/Griffifth University)

The research was done in collaboration with Indonesia's National Research Centre for Archaeology, and scientists from the culture heritage department of Makassar, the provincial capital.

The Griffith researchers said cave art in Sulawesi was first discovered in the 1950s, with at least 242 caves and shelters containing such imagery documented since.

Some of the caves had sustained damage that could threaten the art, said Indonesian rock art expert Adhi Agus Oktaviana, pointing to threats from salt, dust, peeling, microbes and smoke.

"It would be a tragedy if these exceptionally old artworks should disappear in our own lifetime, but it is happening," added Oktaviana, a PhD student at Griffith.

The full hunting scene, which includes pigs, anoas and several humans with animal characteristics, known as therianthropes. The minimum age estimated from uranium dating is shown for each part. (A. Brumm/Griffifth University.)

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