The oldest artwork ever created by humans has been discovered in Indonesia. The cave art found can be dated back 44,000 years, and it’s definitely not your average cave painting. The figures depicted in the painting seem to be half human, half animal and are known as therianthropes. Therianthropes typically are illustrated with human bodies and animal heads, and are often used in mythology. In this particular painting, the therianthropes are hunting pigs and buffaloes using spears and ropes; a rather normal cave painting scene, minus the animal heads. The story was originally published in the online science journal known as Nature. In the journal’s report, scientists believe that the figures in the painting could potentially give us an insight into the original foundation of human spirituality, given the fact that the characters in the painting have animal heads.
“To me, the most fascinating aspect of our research is that humanity’s oldest cave art is at least 44,000 years old and it already has all the key components relating to modern cognition, [like] hand stencils, figurative art, storytelling, therianthropes and religious thinking. So it must have a much older origin, possibly in Africa or soon after we left Africa,” said Maxime Aubert, study author.
Sulawesi, Indonesia is the specific city in which the cave painting was discovered. The city is known for its vast amount of limestone caves. According to Aubert, there are at least 240 known cave art sites in Sulawesi, but considering it’s the 11th largest island in the world, and has barely been explored for cave art specifically, who’s to say what else is left to be discovered. It’s likely that there’s even more insight into what life was like 40,000+ years ago hidden amongst the limestone.
This artwork in particular was initially discovered back in 2017; Aubert and his team were exploring another cave, when one of his associates noticed there was another cave hidden farther above a cliff that was nearby. Upon further exploration, the 44,000 year old art was discovered, and it was covered in what researchers call “cave popcorn.” This term is for the layers of mineral growth that are often found on top of ancient cave paintings such as this one. These layers are very important for scientists when it comes to determine how old the artwork is. Scientists are able to measure the radioactive decay of specific elements within the mineral layers and based off how decayed they are is what determines the age of the drawings.
What’s so astounding about this paintings discovery in particular doesn’t even fully have to do with how old it is, but instead the content of it. Aubert discussed how before this, the oldest cave paintings were thought to be in Europe, and those pieces depicted many abstract symbols and were likely created 40,000 years ago. Fast forward another five thousand years and the cave art became slightly more sophisticated, depicting animal and human shaped figures. However, it wasn’t until about 20,000 years ago where the first cave paintings depicting scenes that share a clear story with therianthropes appeared; until now.
“[It] suggests that there was no gradual evolution of Paleolithic art from simple to complex around 35,000 years ago — at least not in Southeast Asia. The hunters represented in the ancient rock art panel are simple figures with human-like bodies, but they have been depicted with heads or other body parts like those from birds, reptiles and other faunal species endemic to Sulawesi,” said Adhi Agus Oktaviana, study co-author.
The study is so groundbreaking because it’s giving scientists the earliest known evidence of human beings conceiving concepts that are beyond the natural world. Spirituality, religion, mythology, narrative fiction, gods/spirits, etc. these are all concepts that, up until this point, scientists believed humans didn’t have the capacity to understand until about 20,000 years ago. Now, that’s all being thrown out the window, and the study suggests that this discovery could mean that human conceived spirituality could go beyond being just 44,000 years old; with all of the areas still yet to be explored.
Research has also indicated that human beings first arrived in Southeast Asia almost 70,000 years ago, meaning there could be artwork even older and more complex than this one! However, scientists must move quickly, as art as old as this is quite fragile and continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate.
“The early rock art of Sulawesi may contribute invaluable insight into the rise of human spirituality and the spread of artistic beliefs and practices that shaped our modern minds. It would be a tragedy if these exceptionally old artworks should disappear in our own lifetime,” Oktaviana said.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.