pig portrait

45,000-year-old pig painting may be world's most ancient figurative artwork

"This suggests that ancient people on this island possibly felt some sort of strong connection to this wild pig, perhaps even on a spiritual level."

It's easy to think of ancient humans as occupied solely with survival. When our ancestors invented tools, they served a purely practical purpose — to help us adapt to a changing environment due to climate change.

But when it came to documenting their world, ancient peoples were just as obsessed as modern-day humans hooked to their instagram feeds. Ancient humans often depicted the natural world around them through rock art. This connection between the ancient and modern human tale reveals our species tendency to tell stories to help make sense of our world and our place within it.

Every day, scientists learn more about ancient humans through their art, but just how far back these efforts stretch is shrouded in the sands of time. Now, archaeological research published in the journal Science Advances claims to have found the oldest dated figurative artwork ever created by humans — a painting of a pig.

Adam Brumm is a senior research fellow at Griffith University and an author on the new study. He tells Inverse the discovery is not only the most ancient example of figure drawing yet found, it also offers a curious insight into the lives of the people who created it — and their connection to nature.

"This suggests that ancient people on this island possibly felt some sort of strong connection to this wild pig, perhaps even on a spiritual level," he says.

Dated pig painting at Leang Tedongnge. Carry Dated pig painting at Leang Tedongnge. Maxime Aubert Credit: Maxime Aubert Download a high-res jpeg

What's new — The study concerns two decorated caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, which lies between continental Asia and Australia.

Humans have a long history on Sulawesi. Previously discovered ancient cave art on the island has been dated back to the Late Pleistocene era, which accounts for the period of Earth's history between 13,000 and 129,000 years ago.

The researchers behind this new study report on art found at two new limestone caves on Sulawesi previously unknown to science — Leang Tedongnge and Leang Balangajia.

Long undisturbed by humans, the art depicted on these caves' walls is unprecedented. Both of the new sites hold depictions of large, red, warty pigs, surrounded by ancient hand stencils. The reddish color of the pig likely came from mulberries, the researchers speculate.

Ancient humans may have used a brush or their fingers to create these drawings. The ancient humans outlined the pig in red, before using broad strokes and irregular lines to fill its body.

The most plausible explanation is that the Sulawesi rock art is the handiwork of our species - of 'us'.

Why it's newsworthy — These paintings date further back in the archaeological record than any other found examples of human-made figurative art. The researchers dated the Leang Balangajia artwork to 32,000 years ago and the Leang Tedongnge to more than 45,000 years ago. These findings are the minimum ages possible for the artwork, so they could possibly be even older than these dates suggest.

According to the researchers, these findings make the Leang Tedongnge cave art not only the oldest cave art on Sulawesi, but also the "most ancient figure artwork known to archaeology" according to the study.

The pigs are missing certain anatomical details, like sex organs, but incredibly, the ancient artists included enough features for the scientists to identify the depicted creature as S. celebensis, an ancient pig species well known on Sulawesi and distinguished for its unique face warts.

Digging into the details — Although we can't confirm for sure that these paintings were created by ancient homo sapiens, it seems pretty likely, according to Brumm.

"Strictly speaking we can't, but there is no reputable evidence anywhere in the world for earlier human species, like Neanderthals, creating figurative art of any kind, let alone sophisticated representations of animals such as the one we have now dated to at least 45,500 years ago," Brumm tells Inverse.

Brumm adds, "The most plausible explanation is that the Sulawesi rock art is the handiwork of our species — of 'us."

Leang Tedongnge rock art panel video. AA Oktaviana

How they did it — Archaeologists often use a form of technology known as isotope dating, which they apply to uranium in calcium carbonate deposits to identify the minimum age of a specimen.

According to the study, these deposits form "from thin films of water on cave surfaces over a long period of time."

The study extracted these calcium carbonate deposits from the caves and analyzed them in a lab setting. Some of the paint pigments even came off with the extracted deposits, so the researchers could see that the pigments corresponded to the age of the calcium carbonate.

Dated pig painting at Leang Tedongnge.AA Oktaviana

Why it matters — This finding is a pretty big deal in the world of archaeology, according to researchers.

"What we claim to have is the most ancient dated figurative artwork known to archaeology," Brumm says.

For the skeptics out there, Brumm adds: "Some of the undated art archaeologists already know about may be older, but until evidence for this is available in the form of reliable scientific dates — rather than simply assertions or assumptions about antiquity — we can't be sure — hence, our claim stands."

Sulawesi served as the gateway for ancient humans to enter Australia, so this artwork gives further insight into when ancient humans may have passed through this island portal on their way to the continent. There's possibly even older, undiscovered artwork on the island, too.

"Modern humans very likely passed through Sulawesi in order to reach Australia by at least 65,000 years ago, so we expect to find earlier evidence for art and human habitation on the island," Brumm says.

This ancient artwork also gives us a glimpse into how ancient humans perceived their world, including their relationships to the wildlife around them.

"Over 80 percent of the animal images in the early Sulawesi rock art depict the Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis), including the cave painting we have now dated to at least 45,500 years ago," Brumm says. "This suggests that ancient people on this island possibly felt some sort of strong connection to this wild pig, perhaps even on a spiritual level."

Leang Tedongnge rock art panel.AA Oktaviana

What's next — Although the researchers are confident in their age of the ancient artwork, some of the artistic details still elude them.

For example, the cave art depicts teat-like protuberances near the neck of the pigs, which are not features commonly associated with the Sulawesi warty pig.

Are these additions merely artistic license on the part of ancient humans, or an indication of new information about these old pigs?

We'll have to wait for answers. Those speculations are part of a "forthcoming study," according to the paper, so stay tuned.

Abstract: Indonesia harbors some of the oldest known surviving cave art. Previously, the earliest dated rock art from this region was a figurative painting of a Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis). This image from Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 in the limestone karsts of Maros-Pangkep, South Sulawesi, was created at least 43,900 years ago (43.9 ka) based on Uranium-series dating. Here, we report the Uranium-series dating of two figurative cave paintings of Sulawesi warty pigs recently discovered in the same karst area. The oldest, with a minimum age of 45.5 ka, is from Leang Tedongnge. The second image, from Leang Balangajia 1, dates to at least 32 ka. To our knowledge, the animal painting from Leang Tedongnge is the earliest known representational work of art in the world. There is no reason to suppose, however, that this early rock art is a unique example in Island Southeast Asia or the wider region.
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