AN INDONESIAN SPELUNKER named Hamrullah was exploring the grounds of a concrete plant on the island of Sulawesi in 2017 when he spotted the unassuming hole in the limestone high above his head. Without a second thought, he shimmied up the rock and tucked himself into the mouth of a small cave, where he clambered through the tunnel’s cool, musty air. He hit the back wall and saw a mural spread out across eight feet of flaking rock, so he pulled out his phone and began snapping pictures.
The painting, described today in the journal Nature, depicts two pigs and four small-bodied relatives of water buffalo, as well as what appear to be eight humanoid figures that are two to four inches tall. Some of the human figures are holding long, spindly objects pointed toward the animals that might be ropes or spears.
Whether the art depicts a hunt or some other event, it’s likely the oldest known story told through pictures, the researchers say. The mural dates back at least 44,000 years, which makes it about twice as old as most similar cave-art scenes in Europe, such as a 19,000-year-old French mural of a bison charging a bird-headed man. The discovery adds to a growing body of ancient art known in Southeast Asia that changes some long-standing ideas about when and where humans started showing our defining cognitive traits.
“When you do an archaeological excavation, you usually find what people left behind, their trash. But when you look at rock art, it’s not rubbish—it seems like a message, we can feel a connection to it,” says lead study author Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Australia’s Griffith University.
“Now we’re starting to date it, not just in Europe but in Southeast Asia, and we see that it completely changes the picture of our human journey.”
Finding the time
The mural is the latest major artistic work found in the caves of Sulawesi’s Maros-Pangkep region. Millions of years ago, underground rivers had cut through the limestone here to form a maze of caverns, many of which contain hand stencils and other paintings made by the humans who called the island home tens of thousands of years ago. © NGP, Content may not reflect National Geographic’s current map policy.
Since the 1950s, scholars have documented more than 240 cave art sites on Sulawesi, but for decades, these paintings were assumed to be no older than about 12,000 years. That started to change in 2014, when a team including Aubert and Brumm began finding cave paintings in Indonesia that were at least 40,000 years old, making them at least as old as Europe’s famed cave-art sites, if not older.
“Europe was once thought of as a ‘finishing school’ for humanity, because France in particular was the subject of intense research early on … so for a long time the European rock art record really set the tone for what we expected to see,” University of Victoria archaeologist April Nowell, who wasn’t involved with the research, says in an email. “We have long known this view of Europe as a ‘finishing school’ is no longer tenable, and the richness of the finds from Australia and Indonesia continue to underscore this point.”
The mural is globally significant, says Peter Veth, a University of Western Australia archaeologist who reviewed drafts of the study: “As with the early dates of people voyaging across the sea to Australia and engaging in highly complex art, here we have [Southeast] Asian Indigenes showing human-animal relations before sapiens even got to Europe.”
How do researchers tell the age of a cave painting? One method provides an indirect estimate by revealing when minerals started growing over the finished art. These minerals naturally include trace amounts of radioactive uranium, which decays into thorium at a predictable pace. The older the deposit, the more thorium it’ll have relative to uranium.