Some 45,500 years ago, ancient humans ventured into a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and composed a depiction of a bristly-backed native warty pig, now considered to be the oldest known animal painting in the world, if not the oldest figurative artwork.
The painting adds to the growing number of ancient cave art finds throughout Indonesia, which suggest that the world’s oldest rock art may be located in Southeast Asia rather than ice age Europe, as long supposed. In recent years, Sulawesi’s limestone karst caves have become known for a plethora of prehistoric art. These discoveries provide the earliest evidence of human settlement in the region, strengthening theories that early homo sapiens crossed these islands around 65,000 years ago to migrate from Africa to Australia.
Created with strokes of red ochre pigment and measuring 136cm by 54cm, the wild pig painting was uncovered by a small team of archaeologists in late 2017. When searching for traces of ancient human activity in caves in South Sulawesi, the team discovered the artwork at a site called Leang Tedongnge. “I was struck dumb,” said Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Australia’s Griffith University who led the search and dated the piece.
According to Brumm, this porcine creature may reflect a primary hunting target for the ancient artist. He states that while, in reality, the pigs were very small, ancient artists portrayed them as large and fat, likely due to their interest in killing the grandest pig they could find to score the most meat and protein.
Positioned near the rump of the pig are clear outlines of two human hands, but it is difficult to determine with precision what the original image portrayed in its entirety; it appears to be a scene with multiple pigs interacting, but the bodies of two, or possibly three, of the creatures have fallen victim to erosion. Still, at present, the pig is considered to be one of the most well-preserved figurative animal paintings in the region, but the degradation of rock art is predicted to worsen as global temperatures rise.
In Indonesia, rock art is decaying at an alarming rate due to the effects of climate change. Cave art is crumbling faster due to increased temperatures and other extreme weather patterns, accelerating the build-up of salts within the caves. As the environment heats and cools, the salts swell and shrink, and those salt crystals on top of and behind rock art can cause parts of the art to flake off the cave walls.
Newfound cave art is “disappearing before our eyes,” stated Dr Jillian Huntley from the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research. In a press statement, Dr Huntley noted that increased rock art and conservation research is an urgent requirement to have the best chance of preserving cave art.