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44,000-year-old cave painting could be the earliest known depiction of hunting

An excerpt from the cave painting.
Image : Griffith University

Archaeologists in Indonesia have come across an exceptionally ancient cave painting depicting humanoid figures in search of wild swine and buffalo. It is probably the oldest depiction of a hunting scene in the archaeological record, but the vagueness of the work of art allows it to be interpreted.

Recent [1945919] research findings published today in Nature describe the discovery of a 43,900-year-old cave painting found at Leang Bulu 'Sipong 4, South Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The main authors of the new study, archaeologists Adam Brumm and Maxime Aubert of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, say it is a hunting scene, making it the oldest in the documentation – assuming its Interpretation is correct. One of the experts we spoke to said that the painting, which depicts a series of human-like figures around several animals, could be something completely different.

A wide view of the entire painting with notes.
Image : Griffith University

Regardless of the illustrations this piece is significant due to its extreme age, the sophistication of the artwork and its geographical location . Assuming that the dating was done correctly, today it is the oldest known figurative art drawn by early modern humans.

"This is a very important paper," said Chris Stringer, a physical anthropologist from the Natural History Museum in London who was not involved with the new research, in an email to Gizmodo.

First, some important connections before we go into the details.

Older cave paintings from around 64,000 years ago were discovered in Europe but these drawings with animals, dots, geometric signs, and hand-templates were almost certainly made by Neanderthals. An older non-figurative work attributed to our species was recently discovered in South Africa in the form of a 73,000-year-old, hatched pattern on a smooth rock . And in 2014, the same Griffith University researchers found in the new study the oldest known cave paintings made by early modern humans – a series of hand-drawn templates dating back some 40,000 years, also in Sulawesi.

As for cave paintings depicting hunting scenes in which humans and animals are clearly shown together, this is surprisingly rare. Before the rediscovery, the earliest known hunting scenes were among the Upper Palaeolithic cultures of Europe, sometimes referred to as Magdalenian cultures, that originated around 21,000 to 14,000 years ago, including the famous drawing found in the Lascaux mine, France, the one showing wounded bison attacking a bird-headed humanoid. These works of art inspired the idea that the Magdalenian cultures produced this kind of figurative or figurative drawings to which all subsequent cave artists were inspired. The new discovery in Leang Bulu's Sipong 4 removes this Eurocentric assumption.

The 43.9 00-year-old cave painting found in 2017 seems to be a single composition that is about 4 meters wide. The painting is not perfectly legible due to the bright patches that formed on it but much of the scene is still visible. The artist or artists seem to depict tiny human-like figures swinging spears and / or ropes as they track buffalo and pigs.

Possible therianthropes in which hunters are depicted as subhuman, divisional beings (The red arrow above shows the "beak" of the figure.)
Image : Griffith University

Fascinatingly, the figures were drawn as human-animal hybrids – an abstraction or an impression called Therianthropes. Although rare, anthropologists and archaeologists have seen this type of representation before.

" was the earliest known, relatively clear picture of a Therianthropes the so-called Löwenmenschenfigur from Germany, a sculpture of a partially human, partially human cave lion carved from mammoth tusk," said Brumm Gizmodo in an E Mail with. "This was found in cave deposits in 1939, which are believed to be about 40,000 years old. The meaning of this picture was extensively discussed over decades. Some think it's a transfiguring shaman turning into a lion, others think it's a picture of a ghost or God or a supernatural creature, and others think it shows only a guy wearing an animal hide. "

Sure, therianthropes are testimonials of sophisticated thinking. In this case, the figures were used with body parts borrowed from lizards and birds to convey a story or possibly a kind of spiritual meaning. Consequently, this could be the oldest known representation of spiritual or mythical beings that highlights the existential or metaphysical sophistication of this early culture.

"These images represent some of the oldest stories that are told anywhere in the world, and contain elements that were never seen together – a hunting scene depicting hunting strategies combined with the use of Therianthrops." Kira Westaway, an associate professor at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Macquarie University in Australia told Gizmodo. "This is not just a simple representation of yourself, like a hand-held template, but a complex representation of their existence and possibly their beliefs – finding it at this early age is amazing," said Westaway, who is not concerned with the new research ,

A section of the cave painting with six human-like figures around an anoa or a miniature buffalo.
Image : Griffith University

As already mentioned, much of the painting is covered with spots that turn out to be as blessed as they are cursed.

"These features are small, hard, popcorn-like nodule growths that consist of calcium carbonate materials and naturally form on the walls and ceilings of limestone caves for very long periods of time, and sometimes, luckily as in this case, over the prehistoric paintings "Brumm said. "I am fortunate to say that until today it is possible to form these mineral deposits using the method of the Ranium series, which essentially measures the radioactive decay of elements in calcium carbonate."

such as growths were formed long after the drawing, they were used to date the piece, which means that the painting could be older – maybe considerably older than the date given 43,900 years ago. The earliest fossil evidence for Homo sapiens in this part of the world comes from Sumatra about 70,000 years ago, but evidence for archaic humans, namely Homo erectus living in Indonesia, comes from Forget that – about 1.5 million years ago in Java. Interestingly, Denisovans, a Neanderthal sister group, was still there when this cave painting was made, and fossil and genetic evidence suggests that they made it to Southeast Asia and Melanesia. We have Dr. Stringer asked if this art could be made by other people, including Denisovans.

"Well, they might still have survived in Asia at that time, but this kind of art was evidently created by Homo sapiens (19459031) at later times in different parts of the world, so it's most likely the work of ours Being a species that was present in the region more than 70,000 years ago in Sumatra (Lida Ajer) and about 40,000 years ago in Borneo (Niah Cave) and Australia (Mungo), "Stringer said.

The Indonesian island of Sulawesi shows the position of Leang Bulu & # 39; Sipong 4 in limestone karst area of ​​Pangkep at Makassar.
Image : Kim Newman

The painting was drawn using natural mineral pigments such as ocher and ironstone hematite. According to the authors, the scene features several Therianthropes killing or subduing six animals: two Sulawesi warthogs and four dwarf buffaloes, then known as Anoas.

"Although these animals were depicted in the outline profile with irregular filling patterns, the figures were executed with a relatively high degree of anatomical realism, and certain [anatomical features] of these species are clearly depicted, as in the case of the Sulawesi Warthog, its distinctive head comb, and with the Anoas their characteristic straight, dagger-like horns, "said Brumm to Gizmodo.

Brumm said, "We can never know the true meaning of this cave painting," but the "depiction of armed humanoid figures surrounding the animals, confronting them with ropes or spears, at least in our eyes." This view is a pretty convincing proof "This is a hunting scene," he said, adding that it is perfectly plausible that "the presence of Therianthrops may imply a spiritual dimension to art" and could represent "some sort of scene." of myths or religious stories, but of course we can only guess. "

Given the extreme date and location of this cave painting, it is extremely unlikely that artworks that were later seen in Europe had a cultural context.

"Surely these images show that any Eurocentric tale of developing such a complex figurative art must be wrong," Stringer told Gizmodo. "In my opinion, similar artistic works in Australia will someday be put into the same distant time, and perhaps one day one finds in Africa even older representational art, which precedes significant diversions of modern man from there some 60,000 years ago.

In this regard, Westaway said, "Religious thoughts and hunting strategies older than those depicted in European rock art certainly change our view of the capabilities of modern humans traveling through Asia on their way to Australia are.

Close-up of a beast-like figure with the red arrow indicating a possible tail.
Image : Griffith University

But does cave painting actually show a hunting scene? Paul Bahn, author of The first artists: In search of the oldest art in the world is not convinced that the interpretation of the play "a bit exaggerated This is what he said to Gizmodo in an email:

The big animals are doing well and they seem straightforward to our modern eyes, while the "humanoid" figures are so tiny and badly weathered that Their interpretation is by no means clear.These may be giant pipes, but this is highly uncertain.Therianthropes are extremely rare in the European art of the Ice Age, and indeed this is S ammlung – if it is valid – almost bigger than in Europe! For example, the supposed "tail" of [one of the figures pictured above] could just as well be a phallus directed backwards, like that of Europe's most famous Therianthrope in the cave of Les Trois Frères [i.e. the aforementioned bird-headed humanoid found in France].

I agree with the authors that, if in fact they are longings, their status and small size suggest that this is not a simple hunting scene. It's far more likely that it's a story or a myth, and maybe it's not hunting at all. I do not see clear weapons, and the lines may not even be ropes. That can be many things. One could argue that the little creatures create the big ones or vice versa! In short, there is a lot of wishful thinking in the chosen interpretation. Personally, I would have limited myself to presenting some very beautiful early works of art in a part of the world that has come to the fore in this area only recently. It is especially hard to judge because we do not have a single clear hunting scene in the whole European art of the Ice Age!

At the same time, the European examples of Therianthropes were interpreted in terms of their kind of criticism equally worthy of interpretation, and he felt that the authors had made a mistake when they created a complex stone-boned figure named " Mask " 70,000 year old artifact found in La Roche-Cotard, not mentioned. France, produced by Neanderthals, which in his opinion is an early example of figurative art.

Stringer, on the other hand, said that some experts may question the uranium series dating of the wall markings, but the "method seems to have been carefully applied, and this is almost certainly the oldest dated representation art to date." he told Gizmodo. As for the interpretation of Therianthropes and the ropes, Stringer said it was "more speculative," but he found the authors' interpretations "reasonable."

It's pretty amazing how a single old painting can do so much entertainment and speculation – but that's the essence of art and science. It's magical when these two disciplines come together, and it's safe to say that this cave painting will spark discussions and arguments in the coming years.

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