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World’s oldest figurative cave painting depicts ancient hunting scene

Dec. 11 (UPI) — Artistic expression is a vital part of the human story, and it’s a story that began at least 44,000 years ago. The discovery of an ancient cave painting on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi has pushed the origins of figurative cave painting back further than ever before.

The painting was first discovered by Hamrullah, an Indonesian spelunker and archaeologist, while working on a government survey in 2017. After noticing a hole in the ceiling at a cement plant where the survey was being conducted, Hamrullah clambered up a wall, through the opening and shimmied up a tunnel to discover a cave decorated in ancient pigments.

The painting discovered by Hamrullah — and since surveyed by an international team of archaeologists — is described this week in a new paper published in the journal Nature. It depicts a collection of a human-like figures with animal heads, a hunting party. The humans are holding spears, and they look to be after wild pigs and miniature buffalo.

Until the discovery of the ancient mural, measuring some eight feet across on the walls of the cave Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4, the oldest comparable artwork was a 19,000-year-old French cave painting depicting a bison hunt.

The Indonesian mural not only pushes back the roots of the human’s artistic evolution, but expands its geographic bounds. Even at its earliest stages, artistic expression was a global phenomenon.

“When you do an archaeological excavation, you usually find what people left behind, their trash. But when you look at rock art, it’s not rubbish — it seems like a message. We can feel a connection to it,” Maxime Aubert, lead author of the new study and an archaeologist and geochemist at Australia’s Griffith University, told National Geographic. “Now we’re starting to date it, not just in Europe but in Southeast Asia, and we see that it completely changes the picture of our human journey.”

According to Aubert and his research partners, the cave painting isn’t just proof of symbolism and artistic expression, but also of believe in supernatural beings.

The animal heads painted atop the hunters’ bodies don’t make sense as camouflage. Instead, research suggest the figures are human-animal hybrids — supernatural creatures. Similar supernatural figurines have been discovered elsewhere. In Germany, archaeologists found a 35,000-year-old ivory figurine featuring a human body and lion head.

“The depiction of the part-human, part-animal hunters may also be the earliest evidence of our capacity to conceive of things that do not exist in the natural world,” the researchers wrote in The Conversation.

The mythical elements and the narrative action fit with what researchers know about different human societies and their cultural commonalities.

“These depictions underline the great antiquity of narratives and storytelling,” Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany who wasn’t involved in the research, told Science Magazine. “It is encouraging to find concrete evidence for narrative depictions at this early date.”

Researchers can’t be certain who painted the cave, but authors of the new study suspect the artist or artists were modern humans.

“We assume these ancient artists were Homo sapiens and that spirituality and religious thinking were part of early human culture in Indonesia,” Griffith archaeologist Adam Brumm told Science News.

Scientists have previously found dozens of abstract paintings in the caves of Sulawesi, but never such an ancient depiction of figures and narrative action. Unfortunately, many of the region’s cave paintings are deteriorating.

“We urgently need to determine why this art is disappearing and what to do about it,” Brumm told Science News.

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