See the world’s oldest cave painting, a warty pig dating back 45,500 years

Researchers believe this painting of a pig is the oldest known drawing depicting an animal.

Maxime Aubert

More than 45,000 years ago, ancient artists scribbled a detailed picture of a wild pig on a cave wall in Indonesia. Researchers believe it is the oldest cave painting in the world as well as the earliest known surviving depiction of wildlife.

A team from Griffith University in Australia found the remarkably well-preserved image in the limestone karsts of Sulawesi, an Indonesian island east of Borneo. The picture shows a life-size suid – four legs, tail, snout, ears, bristles, facial warts and everything – in red and purple pigment made from powdered ocher mixed with liquid. Two human handprints with stencils, one on the left and one on the right, appear over the rounded rear end of the pig, possibly as a kind of signature of the Sulawesi creatives.

“These Sulawesi Ice Age people were skilled and talented artists with a highly developed knowledge of the behavioral ecology and social life of the wild boar species depicted in this newly dated work of art,” said Adam Brumm, Professor of Archeology at Griffith University, Australia. He is also the co-author of a new study published Wednesday in Science Advances that details research into the painting’s origin, as well as another study found nearby that is 32,000 years old.

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The older of the two drawings measures 136 by 54 centimeters (about 4.5 by 1.7 feet). It appears to indicate that the Sus celebensis, or Sulawesi warthog, is in some social interaction with two other pigs (a fight? A mating ritual?), Although erosion has made it harder to pinpoint exactly what was going on in the suid scene is going. It’s also hard to say if the other two animals were drawn at the same time as the better preserved pig.

A team from Griffith discovered the drawing on the back of a cave called Leang Tedongnge while surveying Sulawesi in 2017. To determine the age, they used a technique called the uranium series to analyze a calcite deposit that formed over part of the image. The mineral formation is at least 45,500 years old, which means the artwork itself could be even older.

The past few years have seen other exciting discoveries of ancient drawings, albeit not configurational, including one found in South Africa 73,000 years ago that resembles a hashtag, and another between 2100 and 4100 B.C. BC, which could show the miracle of man through a star explosion.

The Sulawesi find, however, is figurative, capturing in breathtaking detail a creature that was the key to life for the island’s residents long ago.

“These people’s hunting economy has centered largely around warthogs for tens of thousands of years, and most of the surviving images of animals that we find in rock art are from those pigs too,” said Brumm. “You could call it some kind of old ‘pig love’ that is a defining feature of early human culture on this island.”


The mouth of the Leang Tedongnge cave with the drawing.

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