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Sulawesi Cave Paintings

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

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Painting of a wild pig at Leang-Tedongnge Cave, Sulawesi. World's oldest figurative painting
Figurative painting of an Indonesian warty pig discovered in Leang Tedongnge Cave on Sulawesi Island. It is the oldest art of its type in the world. Image by Oktaviana. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Cave Painting in Sulawesi

Sulawesi is a multi-pronged island in Wallacea, a group of oceanic islands situated between continental Asia and Australia.

According to archaeological evidence from Talepu, a Middle Pleistocene site in south Sulawesi, the island has been occupied by humans since the Late Acheulean period, around 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 68,000 and 58,000 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 rock art on the planet.

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

Sulawesi's parietal art, which is at least 6,000 years older than comparable Stone Age art in Europe, has helped to rewrite the timeline of prehistoric art and reshape the eurocentric narrative.

In particular, it shows that Sulawesi was an important centre of Stone Age culture long before Cro-Magnons developed figurative cave painting in Western Europe.

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Discovery

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 cave 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 paleolithic art 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 450,000 square kilometre region in the island’s southwestern peninsula.

Maros-Pangkep harbours almost 100 decorated caves, but only a few have been investigated.

They include:

Sulawesi's Cave Art

Sulawesi's caves contain both handprints and animal paintings.

In addition, most decorated caves on Sulawesi island 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 five caves.

Leang Tedongnge Cave

Leang Tedongnge Cave contains an animal painting of a warty pig, dating to 43,500 BC. It constitutes the earliest representational work of art ever found.

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 (suids).

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

Leang Bulu' Sipong 4

Leang Bulu' Sipong 4 Cave contains the oldest painting of humans. Depicting a hunting scene involving therianthropic figures hunting wild pigs and buffaloes, it dates to 41,900 BC.

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

Leang Timpuseng Cave is famous for two artworks.

First, a hand stencil (negative handprint) dating to 37,900 BC, which was found on the 4-metre high ceiling.

This is the second oldest known hand stencil in the world, after those in the Cave of Maltravieso (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 Barugayya 2

At the cave of Leang Barugayya 2, archaeologists found a painting of an unidentified suid-like animal. It has a minimum age of 33,700 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" stimulating 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 has been severely undermined by the recent findings in Sulawesi and Borneo.

To begin with, the engravings at Blombos Cave (71,000 BC) and Diepkloof Rock Shelter (60,000 BC) in South Africa - show that Homo sapiens had already developed the cognitive capability to create art, before leaving their home in Africa.

Second, in addition to the exceptional antiquity of Sulawesi cave art, the island of Borneo across the Makassar Strait is also home to numerous paleolithic caves, such as Lubang Jeriji Saleh, which is noted for its painting of a wild bull dating to 38,000 BC.

See: East Kalimantan cave paintings.

In addition, the cave murals in Sulawesi raise hopes that aboriginal rock art in Australia will prove to be equally ancient, if not more so.

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.

References

(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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