The archaeologist Hamrullah may have discovered the world’s earliest narrative and figurative artwork in the Maros-Pangkep limestone cave system of Sulawesi, an Indonesian island. According to the New York Times, the painting, which depicts eight figures approaching wild pigs, dates back some 44,000 years, and a scientific paper published this week reports that the work is “the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world.” Hamrullah, who uses one name, first came across the work in 2017.
The characters in the painting seem to possess a mix of animal and human features, and they carry tools that could represent spears and other weapons. The painting predates the next oldest work of this kind, which is located in Germany, by 4,000 years, and it is more than 20,000 years older than the storied pictures created on the walls of the Lascaux Cave in France.
“This scene may not be a depiction of an actual hunting scene but could be about animistic beliefs and the relationship between people and animals, or even a shamanic ritual,” Sue O’Connor, an archaeologist at Australian National University, told the Times.
Archaeologist Adam Brumm, one of the writers of the report on the finding, told the publication that his team “had never seen anything even remotely like this before in the hundreds of cave art sites we’d documented” in Indonesia.
Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in England, said in an interview with the Times that the discovery is significant “because it was previously thought that figurative painting dated to a time shortly after modern humans arrived in Europe, perhaps circa 40,000 years ago, but this result shows it has an origin outside Europe.”
Pike, however, has doubts about the notion that the work is the oldest example of visual storytelling because the figures in the work have not yet been conclusively dated. The archaeological team behind the discovery thinks that the figures were most likely painted at the same time as the animals depicted, whose age has been conclusively determined using uranium-series dating.