Cave drawings and paintings have been found in several places by researchers. But a few years ago, an Indonesian archeologist by the name of Hamrullah, who happens to also be an avid caver, came upon a narrow entryway of a cave in southern Sulawesi. He uncovered an astounding sight – a brown reddish rock painting unlike any other found before. The excited archeologist snapped a photo of the rock painting and sent it to his Australian colleague, Adam Brumm, who was equally stunned by what he saw. The rock art showed what looked like a hunting scene involving wild pigs, and a small sized buffalo species known as anoa, two of the islands native fauna. What was surprising was that the animals were being hunted by human-looking figures, but with animal traits like tails and snouts. One part of the painting clearly shows an anoa surrounded by several of these human-like figures armed with weapons.
While it may not be the oldest cave drawing found, the honor goes to a tiny sketch on a rock fragment in South Africa dating 73,000 years ago, experts believe the Sulawesi cave painting could be the world’s oldest narrative, or story scene, dating 44,000 years ago. An excited Brumm said, “ I’ve never seen anything like this before. I mean we’ve seen hundreds of rock art sites in this region, but we’ve never seen anything like a hunting scene.” Brumm is the co-author of the study published in the journal Nature.
A team led by archeologist Maxime Aubert were the ones determining the true age of the painting. They analyzed what is known as calcite “popcorn” which has built up on the painting for thousands of years. By measuring the different levels of isotopes, where the radioactive uranium had slowly decayed into thorium, researchers were able to determine the age of the “popcorn.” Part of the painting where the wild pigs were depicted was analyzed to be 43,900 years old, while the scene with the anoas dated back 40,900 years ago, making this the oldest painted story ever.
Archeologists are still challenged to accurately date rock paintings like such, due to the tools used for the artwork. Raw materials used like charcoal could have formed much earlier than the drawings themselves. This is why some of the drawings in Europe, like the one in the Chauvet Cave in France, and the El Castillo in Spain, which date between 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, were believed to be much older than those found in caves in Asia, Africa, and Australia. Alistair Pike, archeologist for England’s University of Southampton says, “It has always been assumed that the tradition of figurative painting arose in Europe, this shows the tradition does not have its origins in Europe.” So far there have been at least 242 caves or shelters in Sulawesi where scientists have discovered images.
The part with the human-like figurines with animal features, known in mythology as therianthropes, signifies the ability among early humans in Sulawesi to imagine things outside of the natural world. “We don’t know what it means, but it seems to be about hunting and it seems to maybe have mythological or supernatural connotations,” Brumm explained. However, there is no conclusive evidence as to the age of the therianthropes, as they found no calcite popcorn over the drawings. But Aubert suggests that the painting was drawn in its entirety around the same time. They have similar coloring and weathered markings. But scientists not involved with the study believe there is a chance that the human-like figurines could have been added much later on, because recorded depictions of humans alongside animals date back only 10,000 years ago. There will always be disagreements when it comes to discoveries about our ancient past, but that is what makes it interesting. Many hoaxes have been uncovered, yet, many new discoveries seem to be unexplainable. Only time will tell what future discoveries will shock the science world.