51,000-Year-Old Cave Art in Indonesia Is the World’s Oldest Figurative Art

Sulawesi Cave Art

Photo: Oktaviana et al via Nature

Researchers believe that they found the oldest example of figurative rock art in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The cave art depicting three humans and a pig was painted at least 51,200 years ago. This is at least 5,000 years earlier than the previous record holder, an image of a pig discovered in a different cave on the island. A new study published in Nature details the findings.

“The painting tells a complex story. It is the oldest evidence we have for storytelling. It shows that humans at the time had the capacity to think in abstract terms,” Professor Maxime Aubert from Australia's Griffith University tells BBC News.

Scientists used new technology to more accurately date the rock art. Using a laser to cut tiny art samples, they studied the work in depth and then dated the material. Interestingly, this single panel was painted in different stages, starting 51,200 years ago and ending 18,700 years ago.

As documented by Indonesia's National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), the cave—Leang Karampuang—was discovered in 2017 during a routine rock art expedition. A member of the Cultural Heritage Guard noticed red markings at the cave's opening and called a team to conduct a full inspection.  At that point, the wealth of imagery in the cave was cataloged.

Until ancient cave art was discovered in Borneo in 2018, its only known traces were in Europe. France's Lascaux caves and Spain's Altamira caves have long been studied for their prehistoric art, but those depictions seem positively modern when compared with what's been discovered in Sulawesi.

The exciting part of finding representational art this old is that it points to a change in thinking for our predecessors.

“Something seems to have happened around 50,000 years ago, shortly after which all other species of human such as Neanderthals and the so-called Hobbit died out,” shares Nature senior editor Dr. Henry Gee.

“It is very romantic to think that at some point in that time, something happened in the human brain, but I think it is more likely that there are even earlier examples of representational art.” If so, we can't wait to see what's yet to be discovered.

Researchers have discovered the oldest piece of representational rock art, dating back 51,200 years.

Sulawesi Cave Art

Photo: Oktaviana et al via Nature

The work was found in a cave on Karampuang Hill, located on Indonesia's Sulawesi island.

Karampuang Hill

Photo: BRIN/Google Art & Culture

Learn more about how these important markings were discovered.

h/t: [BBC News]

Related Articles:

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Australia’s Oldest Known Rock Art is a 17,300-Year-Old Kangaroo Painting

Oldest Neanderthal Engravings Have Been Preserved in a Cave for 57,000 Years

Vogelherd Horse: The World’s Oldest Known Horse Carving From 32,000 Years Ago

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Staff Editor and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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