Indonesian Cave Painting Is Oldest-Known Visual Storytelling

The depiction of three human-like figures interacting with a pig dates to 51,200 years ago

Indonesian cave art with a red pigmentation
Dated rock art panel at Leang Karampuang Provided by Griffith University

A cave painting on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi of human-like figures interacting with a pig may be the earliest known example of visual storytelling.

In research published July 3 in the journal Nature, researchers used a new dating technique to determine that the painting is at least 51,200 years old. The findings suggest that the use of images to tell stories about relationships between humans and animals developed earlier in the region than previously thought.

“Humans have probably been telling stories for much longer than 51,200 years, but as words do not fossilize we can only go by indirect proxies like depictions of scenes in art—and the Sulawesi art is now the oldest such evidence by far that is known to archaeology,” Adhi Agus Oktaviana, first author of the study and an Indonesian rock art specialist at Griffith University in Australia, tells BBC News’ Pallab Ghosh.

“Storytelling is a hugely important part of human evolution, and possibly even it helps to explain our success as a species,” Adam Brumm, a co-author of the study and archaeologist at Griffith University, said in a press briefing, per the Washington Post’s Frances Vinall. “But finding evidence for it in art, especially in very early cave art, is exceptionally rare.”

The earliest evidence of humans making images comes from geometric patterns found in southern Africa from around 75,000 to 100,000 years ago, according to the new study. Researchers aren’t sure whether depicting figures in images arose after this in Africa or somewhere else after humans spread from Africa.

The previous earliest evidence of figurative art was a painting of a pig in an Indonesian cave that dates to 45,500 years ago. In the new study, the researchers used a new dating technique to push back the age of a depiction of a hunting scene also found on Sulawesi from 43,900 years old to at least 48,000 years old.

The new dating technique involves cutting tiny bits of the rock art using a laser, according to BBC News. Researchers can study those bits and determine more accurate dates of creation. 

The new method is “a major leap forward in tightening up the resolution and accuracy of dating,” Tristen Jones, a rock art expert at the University of Sydney who did not contribute to the findings, tells the Guardian’s Sharlotte Thou.

The researchers used this new technique to date a ceiling panel found in a limestone cave in 2017, finding it to be at least 51,200 years old. The image depicts a pig painted with a red pigment standing with its mouth open. The same red pigment was used to make three human-like figures. The largest has both its arms extended, has no legs and seems to be holding a rod-like object in its left hand. The second is in front of the pig. Its head is next to the pig’s snout, and it seems to be holding a stick-like object to the pig’s throat. The third person is upside down with its legs splayed out and is reaching towards the pig’s head.

“We don’t know exactly what’s going on in this scene,” Brumm tells the Washington Post. “But it’s clearly communicating some sort of story that involves the interaction between these three human-like figures and the pig.”

“The painting tells a complex story. It is the oldest evidence we have for storytelling,” Maxime Aubert, a co-author of the study and archaeologist and geochemist at Griffith University, says to BBC News. “It shows that humans at the time had the capacity to think in abstract terms.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.