The arrival of modern humans in Europe is marked by the appearance in the archaeological record of a sophisticated artistic tradition, which includes portable art objects and cave art. Archaeologists have long been puzzled by an apparent lack of antecedents for this artwork, either in Africa or on early modern human migration routes. It is difficult to see how a seemingly mature artistic tradition could arise de novo in Upper Palaeolithic Europe – but if the 40,000 year old cave paintings at sites such as Altamira and El Castillo really were the earliest cave art anywhere in the world, this must have been the case.
In the 1950s, rock art was reported from limestone caves in the Maros and Pangkep regions of the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia. Over 90 rock art sites are known, which have been extensively studied by Indonesian scholars and appear to belong two distinct periods. The art of the earlier period comprises hand stencils produced by spraying pigment over hands pressed against rock surface, together with a smaller number of large, naturalistic paintings of large Sulawesi mammals, including the anoa (a small bovid), the Celebes warty pig and the babirusa (a member of the pig family). The artwork of the later period is typified by small anthropomorphic depictions and a wide range of geometric signs, typically drawn using a black pigment. This later period has been associated with Austronesian migrants on stylistic grounds, and is thought to be no more than a few thousand years old.
The art of earlier period, though much older than that of the later period, was still thought to be less than 10,000 years old. However, recently-reported uranium series dates obtained for 14 paintings (12 hand stencils and two animal paintings) located at seven different sites indicate that it is much older. The oldest hand stencil was at least 39,900 years old and the oldest animal painting was at least 35,700 years old. The most recent hand stencil was no older than 27,200 years old, suggesting a tradition that endured for at least 13,000 years – comparable to the duration of the European cave painting tradition.
That contemporary traditions of cave art occurred in two regions as far apart as Europe and Indonesia implies either independent development or a common origin dating much further back in time. If the latter was the case, we can hope that even earlier depictions of human hands, figurative art and other images await discovery.
1. Aubert, M. et al., Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature 514, 223-227 (2014).