43,900-Year-Old Cave Painting Portrays Part-Human, Part-Animal Beings

Archaeologists excavating the limestone cave of Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi have discovered a painting that is approximately 43,900 years old and which portrays a group of ‘therianthropes’ — abstract beings that combine qualities of both people and animals — hunting wild pigs and small buffalo-like animals with spears or ropes. This hunting scene is currently the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative art in the world.

A group of therianthropic figures confronting an anoa at Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4. Image credit: Aubert et al.

A group of therianthropic figures confronting an anoa at Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4. Image credit: Aubert et al.

“The hunters represented in the ancient rock art panel at Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 are simple figures with human-like bodies, but they have been depicted with heads or other body parts like those from birds, reptiles, and other faunal species endemic to Sulawesi,” said Dr. Adhi Agus Oktaviana, a researcher at Griffith University and the Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional.

“These therianthropes are portrayed in the act of killing or capturing six fleeing mammals, two Sulawesi warty pigs and four dwarf buffaloes known as anoas. The latter are small but fierce bovids that still inhabit the island’s dwindling forests.”

“Remarkably, some figures appear to be using long ropes to capture these dangerous animals.”

Dr. Oktaviana and colleagues measured the radioactive decay of uranium and other elements within mineral growths that had formed on the cave painting, providing minimum ages ranging from 35,100 to 43,900 years ago for the underlying art.

Hunting scene at Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4: the top image shows a photostitched panorama of the rock art panel; the bottom image is a digital tracing of the rock art scene. Image credit: Ratno Sardi / Adhi Agus Oktaviana.

Hunting scene at Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4: the top image shows a photostitched panorama of the rock art panel; the bottom image is a digital tracing of the rock art scene. Image credit: Ratno Sardi / Adhi Agus Oktaviana.

According to the scientists, humanity’s first rock art appeared in Europe and consisted of abstract symbols. By 35,000 years ago, this simple art form had supposedly evolved into a more sophisticated artistic culture characterized by sublime figurative paintings of horses and other animals.

It was also thought that innovative concepts of artistic representation such as compositions with multiple interacting subjects, and the depiction of imaginary entities like therianthropes, were very uncommon until about 20,000 years ago.

“The cave painting from Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 suggests that there was no gradual evolution of Paleolithic art from simple to complex around 35,000 years ago — at least not in Southeast Asia,” said Griffith University’s Professor Maxime Aubert.

“All of the major components of a highly advanced artistic culture were present in Sulawesi by 44,000 years ago, including figurative art, scenes, and therianthropes.”

 

“The images of therianthropes at Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 may also represent the earliest evidence for our capacity to conceive of things that do not exist in the natural world, a basic concept that underpins modern religion,” added Dr. Adam Brumm, also from Griffith University.

“Therianthropes occur in the folklore or narrative fiction of almost every modern society and they are perceived as gods, spirits, or ancestral beings in many religions worldwide.”

“Sulawesi is now home to the oldest image of this kind — earlier even than the ‘Lion-man’ from Germany, a figurine of a lion-headed human, which, at 40,000 years old, was until now the oldest depiction of a therianthrope.”

“Early Indonesians were creating art that may have expressed spiritual thinking about the special bond between humans and animals long before the first art was made in Europe, where it has often been assumed the roots of modern religious culture can be traced.”

The findings were published online this week in the journal Nature.

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M. Aubert et al. Earliest hunting scene in prehistoric art. Nature, published online December 11, 2019; doi: 10.1038/s41586-019-1806-y

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