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Leang Tedongnge Cave

Paleolithic figurative painting
Oldest representational art

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Entrance to Leang Tedongnge Cave, Maros-Pangkep
Entrance to Leang Tedongnge Cave. Photo credits: AA Oktaviana, ARKENAS/Griffith University. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Oldest Figurative Painting

Leang Tedongnge Cave, one of many paleolithic caves in the Maros-Pangkep region of Sulawesi island (Indonesia), contains the oldest figurative cave painting on the planet.

Dated to 43,500 BC, it is 6,500 years older than similar works at European sites - viz, Altxerri Cave in Spain.

Hotspot of Paleolithic Cave Painting

There are a large number of rock art sites in the limestone karsts of Maros-Pangkep, but only a handful have been properly examined.

Of these, five contain animal drawings and handprint stencils dating to the era of Paleolithic art, as follows:

East Kalimantan, Borneo

Prehistoric art of similar antiquity has also been discovered on the nearby island of Borneo.

At Lubang Jeriji Saléh Cave in East Kalimantan, for instance, an animal painting was dated to 38,000 BC.

The discovery of this hotspot of Stone Age culture, on the island-hopping route to Australia, has important ramifications.

Above all, it suggests that migrating modern humans likely developed their artistic/cognitive skills before leaving Africa, rather than en route to their destinations.

This contradicts the previous theory advanced by European experts, that cave painting emerged during a 'creative explosion' following the arrival of modern Homo sapiens in Europe, around 40,000 BC.

Of course, we shouldn't really be surprised that Sulawesi and Borneo are now seen as hotspots of paleolithic art.

After all, the island of Java - their neighbour to the south - is the site of the world's oldest art - the Trinil Shell Engravings, dating to between 540,000 and 430,000 BC.


According to Maxime Aubert, co-author of the important study 'Oldest cave art found in Sulawesi', published in Science Advances (2021), Leang Tedongnge was found in 2017 by doctoral student Basran Burhan, while conducting surveys with Indonesian authorities.


The Leang Tedongnge cave is set in a remote valley, about an hour's hike from the nearest road.

It is not usually accessible during the rainy season, due to flooding. As a result, according to members of the local Bugis community, Burhan was the first westerner to lay eyes on it.

There are more than 570 caves in the region, many with remarkable speleothem formations.

The longest cave extends for a staggering 27 kms.

Over the years, more than 300 types of prehistoric artifacts have been recovered from these caves. Notably, the extremely ancient animal paintings at Leang Tedongnge.

Cave Art

Ochre painting of a warty pig, at Leang Tedongnge Cave. World's oldest figurative art
Ochre painting of a warty pig, Leang Tedongnge Cave. World's oldest surviving figurative painting. Image by AA Oktaviana. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The main panel of cave art is on a ledge towards the rear of the cave, and contains at least three large figurative paintings of wild pigs (suids).

The pigs in question are Sulawesi warty pigs (S. celebensis) easily identified by their characteristic spiky head crests and snout warts.

Game animals, like warty pigs and dwarf buffaloes, were popular subjects for Sulawesi's hunter-gatherer painters, who used their fingers as well as rudimentary paint brushes to portray them in ochre pigments of red and mulberry colour. (See Stone Age colour palette.)

Warty pigs, for instance, appear in 80 percent of all animal images in South Sulawesi.

The three suid pictures at Leang Tedongnge are executed in profile view. Their outlines are infilled not with block colour, but with a combination of painted lines and dashes.

Warty Pig 1, with its short crest of upright hair and pair of horn-like facial warts, is relatively complete, and measures 136 cm by 54 cm. It is positioned, facing right, very close to two hand stencils which appear above and to the rear.

In contrast, Warty Pig 2 (125 cm by 53 cm) and Warty Pig 3 (138 cm by 71 cm), are only partially preserved, due to the effects of exfoliation of the cave wall.

They are facing left, confronting pig 1.

A fourth pig (almost completely faded) is located above pigs 2 and 3.

The arrangement of the figures suggests a narrative composition, portraying some sort of social interaction between a group of suids.

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U-Series Isotope Dating

Using Uranium-series dating methods, researchers conducted analysis of small calcite deposits (coralloid speleothems) that had formed on top of two of the painted warty pigs.

It was carried out using a Nu Plasma multicollector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (MC-ICP-MS) in the Radiogenic Isotope Facility at the University of Queensland.

In total, three U-series dates were obtained.

The results indicated a minimum age of 43,500 BC for the calcite overlying warty pig 1.

This means the painting underneath was at least 45,500 years old, and possibly considerably older.


Significance of the Dating Results

The dates show that the parietal art at Leang Tedongnge is the oldest art of its type in the world.

The second oldest figurative image is the painted panel of dwarf buffaloes (anoas) in the Leang Bulu' Sipong 4 Cave (41,900 BC), located 20 kms to the north.

Does the fact that this art was created thousands of years before Europeans started to draw animals, indicate that Asian man was cognitively more advanced than European man?

Who were the Cave Artists at Leang Tedongnge?

The Stone Age art at Leang Tedongnge serves as the oldest indication of the presence of anatomically modern humans (AMH), on Sulawesi.

It may also be the oldest such indication in the wider region of Wallacea, the zone of oceanic islands located between the continents of Asia and Australasia.

That said, modern humans are believed to have reached Australia some 20,000 years earlier.

If true, we are likely to find even older art on the migratory route between the two continents.

DNA Analysis

Researchers believe the cave paintings were done by Homo sapiens, rather than archaic human species like Denisovans, or Homo erectus.

This must be the most likely explanation - given the sophistication of the art at Leang Tedongnge and Leang Bulu' Sipong 4 - and the fact that figurative animal painting has so far been attributed exclusively to modern humans.

Researchers are hoping that DNA analysis of saliva traces from the hand stencils in the cave, might shed light on the question of authorship.


(1) Brumm A, Oktaviana AA, Burhan B, Hakim B, Lebe R, Zhao JX, Sulistyarto PH, Ririmasse M, Adhityatama S, Sumantri I, Aubert M. Oldest cave art found in Sulawesi. Sci Adv. 2021 Jan 13;7(3): eabd4648.
(2) Moh. Mualliful Ilmi, et al. Uncovering the chemistry of color change in rock art in Leang Tedongnge (Pangkep Regency, South Sulawesi, Indonesia), Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Volume 48, 2023, 103871, ISSN 2352-409X.

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