Karst region of southwest Sulawesi

Archaic humans arrived on Sulawesi — an island in Indonesia just east of Borneo — at least 118,000 years ago, 60,000 years older than previously thought, based on the 2015 discovery of deposit of stone tools and extinct animal bones. Archaeology magazine reported: It is known that various hominin species made it to the islands of Flores, Java, and Papua by this time, and it was assumed that Sulawesi was part of their dispersal. This new find, accumulated over what appears to have been tens of thousands of years, suggests there was, in fact, a well-established population. There are no human fossils, so it is unknown what ancient human species it was. [Source: Samir S. Patel, Archaeology magazine, May-June 2016]

The University of Woolongong reported: It has long been believed that humans first entered the island sometime between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago. In 2016, a research team, led by the University of Wollongong’s Dr Gerrit van den Bergh, reported, in Nature the existence of stone artefacts on Sulawesi dated to more than 100,000 years using the latest generation of luminescence dating technique for feldspars minerals. Dr van den Bergh’s team, from the Centre for Archaeological Science (CAS), excavated an open-air site called Talepu in the south western arm of Sulawesi and unearthed stone tools, together with the fossil remains of extinct and extant megafauna. The excavations went down to a 12-meter depth. “It now seems that before modern humans entered the island, there might have been pre-modern hominins on Sulawesi at a much earlier stage,” Dr van den Bergh said, adding it was possible that — like the island of Flores where the ‘Hobbit’ (Homo floresiensis) fossils were discovered in the 2000s — fossils of pre modern humans may yet be found on Sulawesi. “Sulawesi, like Flores, could have been a natural laboratory for human evolution under isolated conditions,” . [Source: Bernie Goldie,University of Woolongong, January 14, 2016].

Dr van den Bergh discovered the Talepu site in 2007 while surveying the area with Mr Anwar Akib, from the local Cultural Heritage Department, as part of a collaboration between the Geological Agency of Indonesia and Professor Mike Morwood — also from CAS and leader of the team that discovered the ‘Hobbit’. Dr van den Bergh said that a new road had been cut at Talepu and had passed through gravel deposits exposing many stone artefacts on the surface. The age of the artefacts was not clear, however, and early attempts to date the deposits failed to reach a conclusive answer. In October 2012, two of Dr van den Bergh’s colleagues in CAS — Dr Bo Li and Professor Richard (Bert) Roberts — sampled the Talepu deposits and dated the artefact-bearing levels using a new luminescence dating technique for feldspars called ‘multiple elevated temperature post-infrared stimulated luminescence’ (MET-pIRIR) which Dr Li first described in 2011.

Their dating results obtained using Dr Li’s method provided a major breakthrough, showing that the stone tools were buried in sediments deposited more than 100,000 years ago. These luminescence ages were supported by those obtained by the fossil teeth in the deeper deposits at the site using another dating technique, based on the decay of naturally occurring uranium absorbed by the teeth after burial.

The species of human that made the stone tools remains an enigma, as no human fossils have been found at Talepu. But the old ages suggest that the toolmakers were either an archaic lineage of humans or — more controversially — some of earliest modern humans to reach Southeast Asia and perhaps the ancestors of the first people to arrive in Australia.

40,000-Year-Old Cave Art Found in Sulawesi

Rock art and hand prints found in caves in Sulawesi have been dated to nearly 40,000 years ago. Deborah Netburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Archaeologists working in Indonesia say prehistoric hand stencils and intricately rendered images of primitive animals were created nearly 40,000 years ago. These images, discovered in limestone caves on the island of Sulawesi, are about the same age as the earliest known art found in the caves of northern Spain and southern France. The findings were published in the journal Nature. "We now have 40,000-year-old rock art in Spain and Sulawesi," said Adam Brumm, a research fellow at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, and one of the lead authors of the study. "We anticipate future rock art dating will join these two widely separated dots with similarly aged, if not earlier, art." [Source: Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times, October 8, 2014 ~\~]

Location Talepu, where hominins lived 118,000 years ago

“The ancient Indonesian art was first reported by Dutch archaeologists in the 1950s but had never been dated until now. For decades researchers thought that the cave art was made during the pre-Neolithic period, about 10,000 years ago. "I can say that it was a great — and very nice — surprise to read their findings," said Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study. "'Wow!' was my initial reaction to the paper... This spectacular finding suggests that the making of images on cave walls was already a widely shared practice 40,000 years ago." ~\~

“The unexpected age of the Indonesian paintings suggests two potential narratives of how humans came to be making art at roughly the same time in these disparate parts of the world, the authors write. It is possible that the urge to make art arose simultaneously but independently among the people who colonized these two regions. Perhaps more intriguing, however, is the possibility that art was already part of an even earlier prehistoric human culture that these two groups brought with them as they migrated to new lands. One narrative the study clearly contradicts: That tens of thousands of years ago prehistoric humans were making art in Europe and nowhere else "The old 'Europe, the birthplace of art' story was a naive one, anyway," said Roebroeks. "We have seen a lot of surprises in paleoanthropology over the last 10 years, but this one is among my favorites." ~\

As many as 300 caves in the region have been found to contain paintings, making it one of the largest concentrations of early human wall art. [Source: Archaeology magazine, March 2021]

How the 40,000-Year-Old Suluwesi Cave Art Was Dated

Maxime Aubert of the University of Wollongong, the team's dating expert, and his colleagues dated the Indonesian paintings using calcium carbonate deposits known as “cave popcorn” that formed as mineral-rich water trickled down the cave walls. The deposits contain low levels of radioactive uranium which decays into thorium at a known rate, providing an effective geological clock. The age of cave popcorn that formed on top of paintings gave the researchers a minimum age for the images, while samples from underneath the cave art gave them maximum ages. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, October 9, 2014]

“Dr Aubert told The Straits Times: "When the cave water precipitates on the painting, it also contains a small amount of uranium as well, since uranium is soluble in water. Over time, it starts to decay into an element known as thorium. Thorium is not soluble in water, so the element would not have been present at the point of crystal formation. [Source: Cheryl Tan, Strait Times, January 25, 2021]

Deborah Netburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The researchers said they had no preconceived ideas of how old the rock art was when they started on the project in 2011. They just wanted to know the date for sure. To do that, the team relied on a relatively new technique called U-series dating, which was also used to establish minimum dates of rock art in Western Europe. First they scoured the caves for images that had small cauliflower-like growths covering them — eventually finding 14 suitable works, including 12 hand stencils and two figurative drawings...Using a rotary tool with a diamond blade, Aubert cut into the cave popcorn and extracted small samples that included some of the pigment of the art. The pigment layer of the sample would be at least as old as the first layer of mineral deposit that grew on top of it. Using this method, the researchers determined that one of the hand stencils they sampled was made at least 39,900 years ago and that a painting of an animal known as a pig deer was at least 35,400 years old. In Europe, the oldest known cave painting was of a red disk found in a cave in El Castillo, Spain, that has a minimum age of 40,800 years. The earliest figurative painting, of a rhinoceros, was found in the Chauvet Cave in France; it goes back 38,827 years. [Source: Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times, October 8, 2014 ~\~]

Maros-Pangkep Karst Area, Site of the Sulawesi Cave Paintings

location of the Maros-Pangkep Karst Area in southwest Sulawesi

Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: The paintings adorn the walls of caves and shelters at the foot of spectacular limestone towers that rise up from the surrounding rice fields near Maros in southwestern Sulawesi. The caves enthralled the Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who spent months in Maros collecting butterflies, though he appeared not to have spotted the abundant rock art, said Dr Brumm, a co-author on the study at Wollongong. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, October 9, 2014]

Common among the artworks are ghostly hand markings made by blowing, spraying or spitting a mouthful of paint over an outstretched hand. The result — a hand stencil, the negative of a conventional print made by dipping the hand in paint — was an enduring personal signature on the cave wall. “It remains a mystery what hand stencils meant to the prehistoric artists of Sulawesi, and why they created them in such abundance,” said Brumm.

Reporting from the Maros-Pangkep karst area, an hour’s drive north of the port of Makassar in Sulawesi, Jo Marchant wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “I struggle to keep my footing on a narrow ridge of earth snaking between flooded fields of rice. The stalks, almost ready to harvest, ripple in the breeze, giving the valley the appearance of a shimmering green sea. In the distance, steep limestone hills rise from the ground, perhaps 400 feet tall, the remains of an ancient coral reef. Rivers have eroded the landscape over millions of years, leaving behind a flat plain interrupted by these bizarre towers, called karsts, which are full of holes, channels and interconnecting caves carved by water seeping through the rock.[Source: Jo Marchant, Smithsonian magazine, January-February 2016]

We approach the nearest karst undeterred by a group of large black macaques that screech at us from trees high on the cliff and climb a bamboo ladder through ferns to a cave called Leang Timpuseng. Inside, the usual sounds of everyday life here — cows, roosters, passing motorbikes — are barely audible through the insistent chirping of insects and birds. The cave is cramped and awkward, and rocks crowd into the space, giving the feeling that it might close up at any moment.

“The caves we visit in Sulawesi are astonishing in their variety. They range from small rock shelters to huge caverns inhabited by venomous spiders and large bats. Everywhere there is evidence of how water has formed and changed these spaces. The rock is bubbling and dynamic, often glistening wet. It erupts into shapes resembling skulls, jellyfish, waterfalls and chandeliers. As well as familiar stalactites and stalagmites, there are columns, curtains, steps and terraces — and popcorn everywhere. It grows like barnacles on the ceilings and walls.

“We’re joined by Muhammad Ramli, an archaeologist at the Center for the Preservation of Archaeological Heritage, in Makassar. Ramli knows the art in these caves intimately. The first one he visited, as a student in 1981, was a small site called Leang Kassi. He remembers it well, he says, not least because while staying overnight in the cave he was captured by local villagers who thought he was a headhunter. Ramli is now a portly but energetic 55-year-old. He has cataloged more than 120 rock art sites in this region, and has established a system of gates and guards to protect the caves from damage and graffiti.

Artwork in the Sulawesi Caves

The paintings were made with the natural mineral pigment ochre — probably ironstone haematite — which the hunter-gatherers ground to a powder and mixed with water or other liquids to create paint. As of 2014, researchers dated 12 hand stencils and two figurative paintings of animals in seven caves near Maros.

Inside Leang Timpuseng cave, Jo Marchant wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Scattered on the walls are stencils, human hands outlined against a background of red paint. Though faded, they are stark and evocative, a thrilling message from the distant past. My companion, Maxime Aubert, directs me to a narrow semicircular alcove, like the apse of a cathedral, and I crane my neck to a spot near the ceiling a few feet above my head. Just visible on darkened grayish rock is a seemingly abstract pattern of red lines. Then my eyes focus and the lines coalesce into a figure, an animal with a large, bulbous body, stick legs and a diminutive head: a babirusa, or pig-deer, once common in these valleys. Aubert points out its neatly sketched features in admiration. “Look, there’s a line to represent the ground,” he says. “There are no tusks — it’s female. And there’s a curly tail at the back.” [Source: Jo Marchant, Smithsonian magazine, January-February 2016]

Excavation at Leang Panninge

“In a small hidden valley Aubert, Ramli and I climb a set of steps high up a cliff to a breathtaking view and a cavernous entrance hall inhabited by swallows. In a low chamber inside, pigs amble across the ceiling. Two appear to be mating — unique for cave art, Ramli points out. Another, with a swollen belly, might be pregnant. He speculates that this is a story of regeneration, the stuff of myth. Past the pigs, a passageway leads to a deeper chamber where, at head height, there is a panel of well-preserved stencils including the forearms, which look as if they are reaching right out of the wall.

“There are two main phases of artwork in these caves. A series of black charcoal drawings — geometric shapes and stick figures including animals such as roosters and dogs, which were introduced to Sulawesi in the last few thousand years — haven’t been dated but presumably could not have been made before the arrival of these species. Alongside these are red (and occasionally purplish-black) paintings that look very different: hand stencils and animals, including the babirusa in Leang Timpuseng, and other species endemic to this island, such as the warty pig. These are the paintings dated by Aubert and his colleagues, whose paper, published in Nature in October 2014, ultimately included more than 50 dates from 14 paintings. Most ancient of all was a hand stencil (right beside the record-breaking babirusa) with a minimum age of 39,900 years — making it the oldest-known stencil anywhere, and just 900 years shy of the world’s oldest-known cave painting of any kind, a simple red disk at El Castillo. The youngest stencil was dated to no more than 27,200 years ago, showing that this artistic tradition lasted largely unchanged on Sulawesi for at least 13 millennia.

World’s Oldest Known Hand Stencil — From Sulawesi

The world's oldest hand stencil comes from the Leang Timpuseng Cave in the Maros-Pangkep karst area on the Island of Sulawesi. The site also includes some of the most ancient animal paintings. The hand markings left by adults and children on the cave walls are at least 35,000 years old. The oldest one found in Sulawesi was 39,900 years old. The most recent was made 17,400 years ago. The shape of the hands is very close to that of modern humans living today.

Jo Marchant wrote in Smithsonian magazine:“Almost all of the markings Ramli shows me, in ocher and charcoal, appear in relatively exposed areas, lit by the sun. And they were apparently made by all members of the community. At one site, I climb a fig tree into a small, high chamber and am rewarded by the outline of a hand so small it could belong to my 2-year-old son. At another, hands are lined up in two horizontal tracks, all with fingers pointing to the left. Elsewhere there are hands with slender, pointed digits possibly created by overlapping one stencil with another; with painted palm lines; and with fingers that are bent or missing. [Source: Jo Marchant, Smithsonian magazine, January-February 2016]

“There’s still a tradition on Sulawesi of mixing rice powder with water to make a handprint on the central pillar of a new house, Ramli explains, to protect against evil spirits. “It’s a symbol of strength,” he says. “Maybe the prehistoric man thought like that too.” And on the nearby island of Papua, he says, some people express their grief when a loved one dies by cutting off a finger. Perhaps, he suggests, the stencils with missing fingers indicate that this practice too has ancient origins.

“Paul Taçon, an expert in rock art at Griffith University, notes that the hand stencils are similar to designs created until recently in northern Australia. Aboriginal Australian elders he has interviewed explain that their stencils are intended to express connection to a particular place, to say: “I was here. This is my home.” The Sulawesi hand stencils “were probably made for similar reasons,” he says. Taçon believes that once the leap to rock art was made, a new cognitive path — the ability to retain complex information over time — had been set. “That was a major change,” he says.

Hands in Pettakere Cave

Animal Images from Sulawesi

Leang Timpuseng Cave in the Maros-Pangkep karst area also includes some of the most ancient animal paintings. Among them is a depiction of a babirusa or ‘deer-pig’, which are still found in Sulawesi today and were preyed upon by the hunter-gatherers that made the images. “The paintings of the wild animals are most fascinating because it is clear they were of particular interest to the artists themselves,” Brumm told The Guardian. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, October 9, 2014]

Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: The hunter-gatherers preyed on the strange and unique land mammals that evolved in isolation on Sulawesi, an ancient island that has been called the Madagascar of Indonesia. While most of the animals in the paintings are identifiable, the artists often exaggerated aspects of the beasts, perhaps to accentuate features that interested them, said Brumm. “The feet are usually dainty appendages that were evidently painted with exquisite care, whereas the bodies are huge and bulbous, almost balloon-like in form giving some animal images an otherworldly appearance. In a few cases, the actual ground surface beneath the animals is also depicted, which is very rare worldwide. The paintings are feats of great imagination and they provide the first real insight into the artistic culture and symbolic conventions of early modern humans in Asia.”

The focus on Europe as the origin of art arose after the discovery of occasionally exquisite ancient paintings in caves across the continent. The oldest rock art — a smudged red disk on a cave wall at El Castillo in Spain — was painted at least 41,000 years ago. The breathtaking charcoal drawings of horses and rhinos at the Chauvet caves in the Ardeche in Southern France are at least 30,000 years old.

Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, told The Guardian: “These exciting discoveries allow us to move away from Eurocentric ideas on the development of figurative art to consider the alternative possibility that such artistic expression was a fundamental part of human nature 60,000 years ago, when modern humans not only occupied most of Africa but were beginning to disperse out towards Europe and the Far East. “When modern humans colonised Sulawesi at least 50,000 years ago as a precursor to reaching New Guinea and Australia, they were probably already producing these kinds of depictions. I predict that even older examples of cave art will be discovered on Sulawesi, and in mainland Asia, and ultimately in our African homeland dating to more than 60,000 years ago.”

45,500-Year-Old Pig Painting from Sulwesi — World’s Oldest Known Animal Depiction

A well-preserved painting of a pig from the Leang Tedongne cave on Sulawesi may be the oldest known animal image. Dating back 45,500 years, the nearly life-size depiction of a small native warty pig was rendered using red ochre on a rock art panel and appear to be part of a narrative scene. [Source: Archaeology magazine, March 2021]

According to a report published in Science Advances journal the painting measures 136 centimeters by 54 centimeters (53 inches by 21 inches) and depicts a pig with horn-like facial warts characteristic of adult males of the species. There are two hand prints above the back of the pig, which also appears to be facing two other pigs that are only partially preserved.

Paintings in Leang-Leang Cave

Maxime Aubert, the co-author of the report, told the BBC: “It provides the earliest evidence of human settlement of the region. “The people who made it were fully modern, they were just like us, they had all of the capacity and the tools to do any painting that they liked." Aubert used the uranium-series isotope dating technique described above on a calcite deposit that had formed on top of the painting and determined that the deposit was 45,500 years old. Animal paintings found in cave were dated at 44,000 years old “This makes the artwork at least that old. "But it could be much older because the dating that we're using only dates the calcite on top of it," he added. [Source: BBC, January 14, 2021]

“Co-author Adam Brumm said: "The pig appears to be observing a fight or social interaction between two other warty pigs." To make the hand prints, the artists would have had to place their hands on a surface before spitting pigment over it, the researchers said. The team hopes to try and extract DNA samples from the residual saliva as well. The painting may be the world's oldest art depicting a figure, but it is not the oldest manmade art. In South Africa, a hashtag-like doodle created 73,000 years ago and discovered ib 2018, is believed to be the oldest known drawing.

44,000-Year-Old Sulawesi Cave Art — The World’s Oldest Story?

An Indonesian cave painting that depicts a prehistoric hunting scene could be the world's oldest human figurative artwork and the world’s oldest narrative scene, or story. Found in a cave called Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 in southern Sulawesi, the painting is nearly 44,000 years old and indicates how advanced artistic culture was at that time. AFP reported: “Spotted in 2017 on Sulawesi, the 4.5 metre (13 foot) wide painting features wild animals being chased by half-human hunters wielding what appear to be spears and ropes, the study published in the journal Nature reported. [Source: AFP, December 12, 2019]

AFP reported: “Using dating technology, the team at Australia's Griffith University said it had confirmed that the limestone cave painting dated back at least 43,900 years during the Upper Palaeolithic period. "This hunting scene is — to our knowledge — currently the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world," researchers said. The discovery comes after a painting of an animal in a cave on the Indonesian island of Borneo was earlier determined to have been at least 40,000 years old, while in 2014, researchers dated figurative art on Sulawesi to 35,000 years ago. "I've never seen anything like this before," Griffith University archaeologist Adam Brumm told Nature. "I mean, we've seen hundreds of rock art sites in this region, but we've never seen anything like a hunting scene," he added.

“There are at least 242 caves or shelters with ancient imagery on Sulawesi alone, and new sites are being discovered annually, the team said. In the latest dated scene, the animals appear to be wild pigs and small buffalo, while the hunters are depicted in reddish-brown colours with human bodies and the heads of animals including birds and reptiles. The human-animal figures, known in mythology as therianthropes, suggested that early humans in the region were able to imagine things that did not exist in the world, the researchers said. "We don't know what it means, but it seems to be about hunting and it seems to maybe have mythological or supernatural connotations," Brumm was quoted as saying. A half-lion, half-human ivory figure found in Germany that was estimated to be some 40,000 years old was thought to be the oldest example of therianthropy, the article said.

Maros hunting scene

The Sulawesi painting, which is in poor condition, suggests that a highly advanced artistic culture existed some 44,000 years ago, punctuated by folklore, religious myths and spiritual belief, the team said. "(The scene) may be regarded not only as the earliest dated figurative art in the world but also as the oldest evidence for the communication of a narrative in Palaeolithic art," researchers said. "This is noteworthy, given that the ability to invent fictional stories may have been the last and most crucial stage in the evolutionary history of human language and the development of modern-like patterns of cognition."

According to The Independent: “Although the caves they were found in have been studied for their artwork for decades, this particular set of images escaped notice until recently because they are high off the ground. They were only discovered after an archaeologist climbed up a fig tree. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Brumm said. “I mean, we’ve seen hundreds of rock art sites in this region – but we’ve never seen anything like a hunting scene.” Dr Brumm said he screamed with excitement when first shown blurry photos of the paintings by a colleague. [Source: The Independent, December 12, 2019]

What is Depicted in 44,000-Year-Old Sulawesi Cave Art Story?

The red images daubed onto a cave in the painting described above show small human-like figures who appear to be hunting wild animals. The Independent reported: “The study’s authors believe the images show a group of supernatural human figures — people with some animal traits such as tails or bird heads — hunting a type of local buffalo and wild pigs with spears or ropes.[Source: The Independent, December 12, 2019]

According to ABC News: The painting is said to depict “an intricate hunting scene, scholars believe, in which eight small, human-like figures pursue an anoa, a type of buffalo found in Indonesia. The humans have animal features, like snouts and tails, and appear to be wielding thin objects that scholars are interpreting as spears or ropes.

Brumm said: “The humans there, they are not fully human: One has a tail, then others may have some sort of bird head or something. I think it’s probably something that didn’t really exist. Maybe it’s part of a mythical creature… We don’t know. But it is one of the possibilities. The images of therianthropes [animal-human figures] 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,” Professor Brumm said.

However, some scientists expressed scepticism about whether the latest find was actually one scene or a series of paintings done over possibly thousands of years. Depictions of humans alongside animals did not become common in other parts of the world until about 10,000 years ago, one said. "Whether it's a scene is questionable," Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist and rock-art specialist at Durham University in Britain, was quoted as saying.

Pettitt told The Independent: “Is it a scene? The ‘humanoids’ are depicted horizontally, and at a differing scale to the animals they are said to be hunting. “As for ‘spears,’ just look at them. They are long lines that just pass close to some humans. Hardly weapons held in the hand.”He added it was possible the paintings were added to over time, as has been known to have happened in several European caves, rather than daubed on as a single scene.

“Either way, the window for further study of the images is small. The study’s authors said they feared the paintings could soon be lost be deterioration in the cave’s wall. “The surface of the cave is exfoliating like it’s peeling off. And big chunks, every year, are disappearing, and we don’t know exactly why,” Professor Aubert said.

Lukisan Tangan in Leang-Leang Cave

People Who Made the Sulawesi Cave Art

Jo Marchant wrote in Smithsonian magazine: People arrived on Sulawesi as part of a wave of migration from east Africa that started around 60,000 years ago, likely traveling across the Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula to present-day India, Southeast Asia and Borneo, which at the time was part of the mainland. To reach Sulawesi, which has always been an island, they would have needed boats or rafts to cross a minimum of 60 miles of ocean. Although human remains from this period haven’t yet been found on Sulawesi, the island’s first inhabitants are thought to have been closely related to the first people to colonize Australia around 50,000 years ago. “They probably looked broadly similar to Aboriginal or Papuan people today,” says Brumm. [Source: Jo Marchant, Smithsonian magazine, January-February 2016]

“In a cavern known locally as Mountain-Tunnel Cave, buckets, a wheelbarrow and countless bags of clay surround a neatly dug trench, five meters long by three meters deep, where Adam Brumm is overseeing a dig that is revealing how the island’s early artists lived. Brumm and his team have unearthed evidence of fire-building, hearths and precisely crafted stone tools, which may have been used to make weapons for hunting. Yet while the inhabitants of this cave sometimes hunted large animals such as wild boar, the archaeological remains show that they mostly ate freshwater shellfish and an animal known as the Sulawesi bear cuscus — a slow-moving tree-dwelling marsupial with a long, prehensile tail.

“In Mountain-Tunnel Cave, which has hand stencils and abundant traces of paint on the walls, Brumm is now also finding the early artists’ materials. In strata dated to around the same time as nearby stencils, he says, “there’s a major spike in ocher.” So far, his team has found stone tools with ocher smeared over the edges and golf ball-size ocher chunks with scrape marks. There are also scattered fragments, probably dropped and splashed when the artists ground up their ocher before mixing it with water — enough, in fact, that this entire slice of earth is stained cherry red.

“Brumm says this layer of habitation stretches back at least 28,000 years, and he is in the process of analyzing older layers, using radiocarbon dating for the organic remains and uranium series dating of horizontal stalagmites that run through the sediment. He calls this “a crucial opportunity.” For the first time in this part of the world, he says, “we’re linking the buried evidence with the rock art.” What that evidence shows is that on this island, at least, cave art wasn’t always an occasional activity carried out in remote, sacred spaces. If religious belief played a part, it was entwined with everyday life. In the middle of this cave floor, the first Sulawesians sat together around the fire to cook, eat, make tools — and to mix paint.

According to Archaeology magazine: The ability to create figurative and portable objects of art is a characteristic that researchers believe separates Homo sapiens from our ancestors. Until recently though, little evidence had been found showing that early humans who settled Southeast Asia displayed these capabilities. But 2 tiny incised stone artifacts created between 26,000 and 14,000 years ago found in Leang Bulu Bettue Cave on Sulawesi are filling in this gap. One of the objects depicts an anoa — a local miniature buffalo — and the other displays a sunburst pattern. [Source: Archaeology magazine, July-August 2020]

Discovering the Remarkable Age of the Sulawesi Cave Art

Jo Marchant wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Aubert, who grew up in Lévis, Canada, and says he has been interested in archaeology and rock art since childhood, thought to date rock formations at a minute scale directly above and below ancient paintings, to work out their minimum and maximum age. To do this would require analyzing almost impossibly thin layers cut from a cave wall — less than a millimeter thick. Then a PhD student at the Australian National University in Canberra, Aubert had access to a state-of-the-art spectrometer, and he started to experiment with the machine, to see if he could accurately date such tiny samples. [Source: Jo Marchant, Smithsonian magazine, January-February 2016]

Pig-deer paintings in Pettakere Cave

In the meantime, Brumm — an archaeologist at the University of Wollongong, where Aubert had received a postdoctoral fellowship — started digging in caves in Sulawesi. As Brumm and his Indonesian colleagues worked they were struck by the hand stencils and animal images that surrounded them. The standard view was that Neolithic farmers or other Stone Age people made the markings no more than 5,000 years ago — such markings on relatively exposed rock in a tropical environment, it was thought, couldn’t have lasted longer than that without eroding away. But the archaeological evidence showed that modern humans had arrived on Sulawesi at least 35,000 years ago. Could some of the paintings be older? “We were drinking palm wine in the evenings, talking about the rock art and how we might date it,” Brumm recalls. And it dawned on him: Aubert’s new method seemed perfect.

After that, Brumm looked for paintings partly obscured by speleothems every chance he got. “One day off, I visited Leang Jarie,” he says. Leang Jarie means “Cave of Fingers,” named for the dozens of stencils decorating its walls. Like Leang Timpuseng, it is covered by small growths of white minerals formed by the evaporation of seeping or dripping water, which are nicknamed “cave popcorn.” “I walked in and bang, I saw these things. The whole ceiling was covered with popcorn, and I could see bits of hand stencils in between,” recalls Brumm. As soon as he got home, he told Aubert to come to Sulawesi.

“Aubert spent a week the next summer touring the region by motorbike. He took samples from five paintings partly covered by popcorn, each time using a diamond-tipped drill to cut a small square out of the rock, about 1.5 centimeters across and a few millimeters deep. Back in Australia, he spent weeks painstakingly grinding the rock samples into thin layers before separating out the uranium and thorium in each one. “You collect the powder, then remove another layer, then collect the powder,” Aubert says. “You’re trying to get as close as possible to the paint layer.” Then he drove from Wollongong to Canberra to analyze his samples using the mass spectrometer, sleeping in his van outside the lab so he could work as many hours as possible, to minimize the number of days he needed on the expensive machine. Unable to get funding for the project, he had to pay for his flight to Sulawesi — and for the analysis — himself. “I was totally broke,“ he says.

“The very first age Aubert calculated was for a hand stencil from the Cave of Fingers. “I thought, ‘Oh, shit,’” he says. “So I calculated it again.” Then he called Brumm. “I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying,” Brumm recalls. “He blurted out, ‘35,000!’ I was stunned. I said, are you sure? I had the feeling immediately that this was going to be big.”

Sulawesi Cave Art Being Damaged by Climate Change

Prehistoric Sulawesi cave painting — including the 45,500 years old pig image, the world's oldest animal cave painting — are decaying at an alarming rate due to the effects of climate change, researchers said. These pieces of art are “disappearing before our eyes," Dr Jillian Huntley, from the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, said in a press statement. [Source: BBC, May 19, 2021]

The BBC reported: In a study published in Scientific Reports in May 2021, a team of Australian and Indonesian researchers found that increased temperatures and other extreme weather patterns — such as consecutive dry days and heavy monsoons — have accelerated the build-up of salts within the cave systems housing the rock art. “The salts swell and shrink as the environment heats and cools. On hot days, geological salts can grow to more than three times their initial size, the team wrote. These salt crystals, growing on top of and behind the rock art, can then cause parts of the pictures to flake off the cave walls.

“Dr Huntley added that she believed the "degradation of this incredible rock art is set to worsen the higher global temperatures climb. I was gobsmacked by how prevalent the destructive salt crystals and their chemistry were on the rock art panels, some of which we know to be more than 40,000 years old," she said. "We urgently need further rock art and conservation research to have the best chance of preserving the Pleistocene cave paintings of Indonesia."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except of Talepu map from Nature

Text Sources: Archaeology National Geographic, University of Woolongong, The Guardian, AFP, BBC, Los Angeles Times, The Independent, New York Times, Ministry of Tourism, Republic of Indonesia, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Reuters, Wikipedia, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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