The first people reached the islands of Southeast Asia and Australia almost 50 thousand years ago. Griffiths archaeologist Adam Brumm and his colleagues are exploring traces of those migrations scattered in caves of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. They found hundreds of “pencils” of red pigments, scrapers, chiseled figures and, of course, cave paintings. In an article published in the journal Nature, scientists report on their new unique find – a mystical depiction of a hunting scene. Dated at least 44 thousand years old, it is the oldest genre painting written by man.
Back in 2017, the Indonesian archaeologist and caver Pak Hamrullah noticed a time-hidden hole in the limestone wall of one of the dozens of caves explored on the island of Sulawesi. The short passage ended with a small grotto, on the wall of which there was an unusual pattern made by red ocher in a space about 4.5 meters wide. Unlike most cave paintings discovered by scientists before, he depicts a whole genre scene.
According to scientists, a pair of local Javanese pigs and eight dwarf buffalo anoa act in the hunting taking place in the picture: both of them still live in Sulawesi. They are chased by eight small spear-armed figures, half-human, half-animal. Some are distinguished by a long elongated muzzle, one draws something like a beak, and another draws a tail.
Such figures may reflect camouflage elements used by primitive hunters. However, scientists associate their appearance with mystical practices: such “half-humans” are already known for some other rock paintings, including the famous bone “lion man”, found in the Alps and dated to the age of 35 thousand years.
The hunting scene includes several animals and several half-humans / © Maxime Aubert et al., 2019
Taking samples of limestone from the walls of the cave, scientists examined them in the laboratory. For years, water entering its micropores left a precipitate, including trace amounts of radioactive uranium. Over time, it disintegrated, turning into thorium. The ratio of these nuclei in the layer that accumulated directly on top of the figure indicated its minimum age – 43.9 thousand years. If this estimate is correct, then the drawing is several thousand years older than the oldest known examples of figurative painting from Europe and 20 thousand years older than the oldest European image of hunting.
The simplest images in the form of dots, zigzags and lines appeared earlier: in the Spanish cave they are dated as much as 65 thousand years old and, possibly, were left by Neanderthals. However, figurative painting, such as images of birds, requires much greater skill and developed thinking. Moreover, the image of “half-humans”, which, apparently, is woven into a complex mythological picture of the world.