About 44,000 years ago, an artist with a brush climbed the rock wall of an Indonesian island. Perhaps inspired by the spiritual illusion, the artist depicts a hunting scene in which a small, animal-headed hunter holds a spear and pushes the ferocious wild boar and the calf into extinction.
In a cave mural in Indonesia, dwarf hunters surround a dwarf buffalo with ropes or spears. Photo credit: RATNO SARDI
Recently, researchers say this imaginative story shows that people already have the same imagination as us when cave murals appear, perhaps earlier. They also believe it is the oldest known art created by modern humans.
‘We think humanity’s ability to create a story or narrative is the last step in human cognition,’ said Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia and lead the study. This is the world’s oldest rock art, where all the key aspects of modern cognition are.
Over the past five years, Aubert and his colleagues have explored dozens of caves in Sulawesi, Indonesia, and found hundreds of handmade templates, cave murals, red paint crayons and statues. Archaeological data show that artists came here with early modern humans about 50,000 years ago.
In 2017, the study’s co-author, Indonesian archaeologist and cave explorer Pak Hamrullah, noticed a small hole in the ceiling of a previously explored limestone cave. He climbed the vines of fig trees and entered the little cave. In the distance, a panel of red-colored pigments is embedded in the wall.
When he saw it, Aubert was stunned. “It’s like a complete scene: humans or half-humans and half-beasts hunting or capturing these animals… It’s amazing. He said.
The animals hunted appear to be Sulawesi’s warthogs and bison(also known as dwarf buffaloes), both of which still live on the island. But what attracted Aubert was the animal features of eight hunters, armed with spears or ropes, some that appeared to have elongated mouths and noses, one that seemed to have a tail and the other with a beak that resembled a bird’s beak.
These features may depict masks or other disguises, but researchers believe that for hunters, dress-ups like small animals are a poor disguise. More likely, Aubert argues, these images represent the hybrid of mysterious animals and humans. Such images have appeared in early works of art, including a 35,000-year-old statue of an ivory lion man found in the German Alps.
To find out the year of the Sulawesi cave painting, Aubert carefully transported the debris back to the lab. Over the years, rainwater has seeped out of porous limestone, seeping into rock walls, leaving mineral deposits known as “cave popcorn” on the pigment. “Popcorn” contains trace amounts of uranium, which decays at a fixed rate over time. By analyzing the ratio of uranium to thorium in the mineral layer, the researchers calculated the minimum age for the painting: 44,000 years old, the researchers reported in Nature.
This means that the cave scene sits at least 4,000 years before other symbolic ancient rock art found in Indonesia and Europe, and 20,000 years before europe’s oldest hunting scene.
Aubert says the ability to imagine non-existent creatures is an important cognitive milestone and a religious and spiritual root cause. In Sulawesi, 44,000 years ago, this capacity was fully formed, suggesting that it may have existed in early modern humans who left Africa and moved to other parts of the world.
Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tubingen in Germany who was not involved in the study, said the hypothesis makes sense given that every modern human society has its own mythical tradition. “These depictions highlight the great history of narrative and storytelling, and it is encouraging to find concrete evidence of narrative stelling in such an early period. “
April Nowell, an archaeologist at the University of Victoria in Canada, added that the findings could also help dispel outdated and misconceptions that humans were first fully modernized in Europe. “We’ve known for a long time that this view is no longer tenable and that records outside Europe are very important. “