Perhaps the oldest representation of animals in the world

Indonesia is famous for its ancient cave paintings. Researchers have now discovered a representation of pigs on the largest Indonesian island of Sulawesi, dating back to at least 45,500 years old. Hence, the rock painting is possibly the world’s oldest surviving depiction of animals. At the same time, the photo can be interpreted as the oldest evidence of anatomically newly found people in Sulawesi.

According to excavations, the ancestors of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi settled more than 100,000 years ago. This is indicated by stone artifacts that are between 118,000 and 194,000 years old and it is very likely that they arose from now an extinct hominid species. It is not clear when the first modern humans arrived in Sulawesi. Some very ancient cave paintings are known with pictorial representations, which are attributed to Homo sapiens. The oldest to date dates back to 43,900 years.

Pig as an ingredient

Researchers led by Adam Broome of Griffith University in Australia discovered two previously unknown rock paintings in two limestone caves in Sulawesi. Both show the Sulawesi warthog, a hog that was already widespread on the island in the days of early humans and still exists there today. The idea is not strange: “Pictures of pigs or pig-like creatures are by far the most common forms,” the researchers explain. More than 80 percent of the photos of animals found in the area show what used to be an important hunting prey. Pigs were painted with red and purple metallic dyes. Characteristic warts on the face can be clearly recognized.

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Broom and colleagues dated the images using uranium isotope dating. Radioactive uranium decay is used to determine the age of mineral and rock samples. The researchers used small scale limescale deposits on the plates. The result: the smaller of the two images, a pig from Leang Balangajia 1 Cave, is at least 32,000 years old. The oldest, a pig measuring 136 x 54 cm from Leang Tedongnge Cave, was established at least 45,500 years ago.

The earliest reference to Homo sapiens in the area

This well-preserved pig is surrounded by other, less complete images of the animals, which, according to the researchers, also depict pear Soulawesi pigs. As much as can be reconstructed from the remains, a total of four pigs appear to face each other in pairs, although only a few identifiable remains have survived from one. “We suspect this cave painting was supposed to depict a cycle of social interaction between at least three, and possibly even four, individual pigs,” Broome and colleagues wrote. There are also two human hand diagrams above the best-kept pig.

The researchers write: “The photograph from Liang Tedongeng, which has a proven minimum age of 45,500 years, is now the oldest work of art known to have been dated to Sulawesi.” “Additionally, this photograph of a Sulawesi warty pig appears to be the oldest surviving depiction of an animal in the world.” It may be the oldest known symbolic depiction of modern man. Ancient cave paintings were discovered in Spain and dated from 65,000 years ago. However, it is abstract and is not ascribed to modern humans, but rather to Neanderthals.

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Researchers cannot say with absolute certainty whether the drawings were actually made by Homo sapiens. “Nevertheless, this appears to be the most likely explanation, given the complexity of these early representational artworks and the fact that pictorial representations were previously attributed only to Homo sapiens elsewhere in the world,” they wrote. “If so, the pig image dated from Leang Tedongnge appears to provide one of the oldest, if not oldest, evidence of our species being in the Wallacea region between Asia and Australia.”

Coyle: Adam Broome (Griffith University, Queensland) et al. Science Advance, Doi: 10.1126 / sciadv.abd4648

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