Sulawesi Cave Paintings

Animal painting of warty pig
Leang Tedongnge Cave: 43,500 BC
World's oldest figurative image

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Cave Painting in Sulawesi

Sulawesi - a multi-pronged island in the Banda Sea, between Kalimantan and West Papua New Guinea. - has been occupied by humans since the Late Acheulean period of the Stone Age, about 194,000 BC.

Its earliest occupants were either Homo erectus or Denisovans, who were the only two known indigenous species of humans in the region.

They were probably displaced by modern Homo sapiens from Africa, who arrived between 67,000 and 57,000 BC.

Sulawesi's geographical location made it an obvious stepping stone for modern humans en route to Australia, which no doubt explains why it's home to some of the oldest prehistoric art on the planet.

In particular, it is famous for its representational cave painting of local wild pigs and dwarf bovids, as well as some ancient hand stencils.

Sulawesi's parietal art, which is at least 10,000 years older than comparable Stone Age art in Europe, has helped to rewrite the timeline of prehistoric art and reshape the eurocentric narrative.

It shows that Sulawesi was an important centre of Stone Age culture long before Cro-Magnons started to revolutionize Neanderthal Europe.

Curiously, the Kangaroo painting (15,300 BC) in the Kimberley region in northwest Australia, is similar in style to the warty pigs depicted in Sulawesi.

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Sulawesi's caves were first investigated by the British naturalist Alfred Wallace in July 1857, during a trip to the East Indies.

In 1906, a Swiss team expedition returned from the island with vivid accounts of ancient rock art, but gave few details.

Indeed it wasn't until 1950, when the Dutch archaeologist H.R. van Heereken reported pictures of animals and hundreds of hand stencils, archaeologists took notice

Even so, it wasn't until the 1990s that Sulawesi's paleoart was recognized as exceptional.

Finally, in 2009, the Indonesian government submitted Sulewesi's caves for inclusion on the UNESCO tentative list of World Heritage Sites.

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Which are the Most Important Caves in Sulawesi?

The most important paleolithic caves in Sulawesi are located in the limestone karsts of Maros-Pangkep, a remote area on the west side of south Sulawesi.

Of the ninety or so rock art sites in the area, only a few are being excavated.

They include the caves of:

The Sulawesi Cave Art

As in the neighbouring caves of East Kalimantan, as well as the oldest European sites at El Castillo, Altamira, and Pech Merle - Sulawesi's caves contain both handprints and animal paintings.

In addition, the paintings at Leang Tedongnge, Bulu'Sipong, Leang Timpuseng and Leang Balangajia share a number of common features.

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How Old are the Sulawesi Cave Paintings?

The oldest art in Maros-Pangkep was found in four caves.

Leang Tedongnge Cave

The cave art at Leang Tedongnge includes an animal painting of a warty pig dating to 43,500 BC. Completed prior to the Aurignacian era in Europe, it's the earliest representational work of art ever found. (See also: World's Oldest Art.)

The dated painting is found on a panel located toward the rear of the cave. It depicts a social interaction between at least three, and possibly four warty pigs.

The painting features at least three large images of suids and two hand stencils.

Pig 1 measures 136 cm by 54 cm; pig 2 is 125 cm by 53 cm; pig 3, 138 cm by 71 cm.

Pigs 2 and 3 seem to be confronting each other. There is a fourth animal but this image is too heavily exfoliated to be identifiable.

Bulu'Sipong 4 Cave

The oldest Stone Age painting in the Bulu'Sipong 4 Cave is a picture of figures hunting wild pigs, which dates to 41,900 BC.

The painting portrays several figures that appear to represent part-human, part-animal figures armed with spears and ropes, hunting pigs and anoas.

This hunting scene could be the world's oldest-recorded story.

U-series isotope analysis was conducted on the calcite crust overlying three separate animal images. One warty pig was dated to 41,900 BC, while two anoas had minimum ages of 39,000 BC and 38,900 BC respectively.

Leang Timpuseng Cave

There are two ancient images in the Leang Timpuseng Cave.

First, a hand stencil (negative handprint) dating to 37,900 BC, which was found on the 4-metre high ceiling. This is the third oldest known hand print in the world, after the Quesang handprints in Tibet (167,000 BC) and those in the Cave of Maltravieso, Spain, (64,700 BC).

Second, the cave contained a painting of a 'babirusa' (a type of SE Asian "pig-deer") dating to 33,400 BC.

Leang Balangajia 1 Cave

Here, archaeologists found a painting of a warty pig, dated 30,000 BC.

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What Dating Method was Used?

All images at the Leang Tedongnge, Bulu'Sipong, Leang Timpuseng and Leang Balangajia caves, were dated using Uranium/Thorium (U/Th) dating techniques.

Researchers tested the overlying coralloid speleothem calcite deposits in order to fix the age of the underlying painting, so all dates are minimum dates. Some of the pictures could be significantly older.

Why is Sulawesi's Art Important?

Why is the prehistoric cave painting in the caves of Maros-Pangkep so significant?

Because until recently, it was thought that hunter-gatherers who left Africa and migrated to south-east Asia before the Upper Paleolithic, lacked the cultural and cognitive capacity to create art of any significance.

Scientists thought they developed this skill only after leaving Africa - probably after arriving in Europe.

Moderns arriving in Europe (from about 40,000 BC) met and clashed with the indigenous species of Neanderthal man. Scientists thought that this clash may have precipitated a major "cognitive advance" enabling the creation of art.

Belief in this theory was strengthened by the discoveries of magnificent Stone Age paintings at Altamira, La Pasiega, and Lascaux, among several other European sites.

However, this theory is no longer valid.

New finds of prehistoric art - including the Trinil Shell Engravings (540,000 BC) and the Bilzingsleben Engravings (350,000 BC) - show that mankind was capable of creating abstract 'art' much earlier than expected.

Even if we discount these highly exceptional discoveries, the engravings at Blombos Cave, the Klasies River Caves and Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa - show that Homo sapiens hunter-gatherers developed a common cultural and cognitive capability before leaving their home in Africa, rather than after their arrival in Europe or SE Asia.

In addition, the cave murals in Sulawesi raise hopes that aboriginal rock art in Australia will prove to be much older than results so far suggest.

Expect Even Older Art

There is no reason to suppose that the Leang Tedongnge cave art is a unique example either in Sulawesi or the Southeast Asia region.

All this means there could be a lot more Stone Age art waiting to be found in Sulawesi, and it could be much older.


(1) "Earliest hunting scene in prehistoric art." Aubert, M., Lebe, R., Oktaviana, A.A. et al. Nature 576, 442–445 (2019)
(2) "Oldest cave art found in Sulawesi." Science Advances. 13 Jan 2021. Vol 7, Issue 3.

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