The 45,500 years old painting of a wild boar Is the ‘oldest figurative work’ of art in the world

The 136 by 54-centimetre rock drawing was discovered in a cave on the island of Celebes in Indonesia

cave painting oldest
Cave painting of a Sulawesi warthog from at least 45,500 years ago at Leang Tedongnge, Indonesia © Maxime Aubert/Griffith Universit

Leang Tedongnge Cave, located on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, is home to the world’s oldest work of art known so far: an article published this Wednesday in the journal Science reveals, this 136-cm-long by 54-cm-tall warthog painted more than 45,500 years ago.

The place where this cave painting has been found, discovered by archaeologist Adam Brumm and a team of scientists from Griffith University (Australia), is a part of a limestone karst valley that had remained unexplored until 2017, although it was found very close to Makassar, the largest and most populated city in the region. Brumm and his group were the first Westerners to visit the area: “The locals say that before us no one other than them had entered these caves,” says Brumm.

The warthog, painted with mineral pigments in red, replaced as the oldest work of art a hunting scene from 43,900 years ago, also discovered by Brumm and his team in 2019 in a neighbouring cave on the same island. The article reveals that, near the animal, there are drawn two other less complete pigs that seem to face each other. “These new discoveries add weight to the view that the earliest modern rock art traditions probably did not arise in Ice Age Europe, as was long believed, but rather sometime earlier outside of this area, perhaps in somewhere in Asia or Africa where our species evolved”, says Brumm.

Leang Tedongnge cave on the island of Célebe in Indonesia
Leang Tedongnge cave on the island of Célebe in Indonesia © AA Oktaviana

According to the researchers, this cave painting also provides the earliest evidence of anatomically modern humans on the island of Celebes. “The finding supports the hypothesis that the first Homo sapiens populations to settle in this area of ​​Indonesia created artistic representations of animals and narrative scenes as part of their culture,” the article reads.

To determine the age of the drawings, the scientists used a technique called uranium series that consists of not dating the painting itself, but the geological processes associated with artistic activity.

Marcos García-Diez, professor in the Department of Prehistory and Archeology at the Complutense University of Madrid and co-discoverer of the Cantabrian Neanderthal paintings, explains that, due to the circulation of water, in these caves very thin films of calcite are formed on the walls of the cave: “It is those plates, which are above the painting, which are dated. Therefore, if you know how old that calcite is, you can tell that the painting was there before. In this case, more than 45,500 years ago.”

Dated pig painting at Leang Tedongnge.AA Oktaviana
Dated pig painting at Leang Tedongnge © AA Oktaviana

García-Diez agrees with Brumm and his team that these findings are changing the paradigm of rock art. “Everyone thought that the first works of art were in Europe, but the discovery of this wild boar confirms that the oldest and most documented figurative paintings are on the other side of the world, on those Indonesian islands.”

García explains that the paintings of signs, points and lines that exist in Europe from approximately 60,000 years ago are not considered figurative art and were not made by Homo sapiens, but by an earlier species. “Unlike those of our continent, everything indicates that the paintings discovered in Sulawesi belong to the first populations of modern humans that probably crossed this island to reach Australia 65,000 years ago”, says García.

Another distinctive aspect of these paintings is that they are not only outlined as in most ancient figures but also have interior lines. According to García “They are not two-dimensional paintings; they are coloured, they have fillings.” He also said, “With that, the humans of the time wanted to convey the idea that the animal they were drawing had mass, volume, which was not a flat representation.”

For the Spanish researcher, the only controversy of the finding, which in his opinion has no doubt about the method, the quality of the samples and the chemical analysis, is that the authors of the article insist that the wild boar is part of a narrative scene.

“The article suggests that, alongside this animal, there are two other less complete pigs that seem to be fighting. This does not seem so clear to me. It is a nuance, a matter of interpretation, of how we read the figures. I think it is difficult to try to justify a scene when the state of conservation of the paintings of the other boars is not good. I think that instead of a scene, it is a photograph of reality, a fixed representation”, says García.