Art & Culture

The world’s oldest cave art is 51,200 years old: What a new study says | Explained News

Researchers have determined that the world’s oldest known figurative cave painting dates back 51,200 years by using a new dating technique, according to a recent study. Located in the Leang Karampuang cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, the painting in red pigment shows a pig with its mouth partially open and three part-human, part-animal stick figures, or therianthrope.

The study, ‘Narrative cave art in Indonesia by 51,200 years ago’, was published in the journal Nature on Wednesday (July 3). It was carried out by a team of 23 researchers from Australia’s Griffith University, Southern Cross University and the Indonesian National Research and Innovation Agency.

Although the samples were collected in 2017, they were not dated until earlier this year. The painting is more than 5,000 years older than the previous oldest cave art — it was a painting of a wild pig, which was discovered in 2021 in Leang Tedongnge, Indonesia.

Here is a look at the painting, its significance, and what is the new dating technique.

What does the painting show?

“One figure seems to be holding an object near the pig’s throat. Another is directly above the pig’s head in an upside-down position with legs splayed out. The third figure is larger and grander in appearance than the others; it is holding an unidentified object and is possibly wearing an elaborate headdress… The manner in which these human-like figures are depicted in relation to the pig conveys a sense of dynamic action. Something is happening in this artwork – a story is being told,” according to an article, published by The Conversation, which has been written by the researchers involved in the study.

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Why is the painting significant?

The researchers in the study wrote: “Our findings show that figurative portrayals of anthropomorphic figures and animals have a deeper origin in the history of modern human (Homo sapiens) image-making than recognised to date, as does their representation in composed scenes.”

Archaeological evidence shows that Neanderthals (considered closest ancient human relatives) began marking caves as early as 75,000 years ago, but these markings were typically non-figurative. The researcher further states: “On the basis of our dating work, it now seems that depictions of anthropomorphic figures (including therianthropes) interacting with animals appear in the Late Pleistocene cave art of Sulawesi at a frequency not seen elsewhere until tens of millennia later in Europe. This implies that a rich culture of storytelling developed at an early period in the long history of H. sapiens in this region — in particular, the use of scenic representation to tell visual stories about human-animal relationships.”


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Nayanjot Lahiri, historian, archaeologist and professor of history at Ashoka University said, “It is an exciting discovery to be celebrated.”

What is the new dating technique?

The finding is based on dating using uranium series (U-series) analysis of calcite deposits overlying rock art in the limestone caves. Laser beams were used during the process and by comparing the ratio between the parent isotope (uranium) and the daughter isotope (thorium) researchers were able to date the paintings.

Using the same method, researchers also dated another hunting scene on a cave painting at Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4, earlier believed to be 43,900 years old. Their finding indicated that the painting is at least 4,000 years older than first estimated.

“This method enables us to more readily demonstrate the unambiguous relationship between the calcium carbonate material used for dating and the rock art pigment layer(s) to which it corresponds,” the researchers said in the study.

Lahiri said that there are not many directly dated cave paintings. “In India, there is a lot of rock art in places like Madhya Pradesh, but you haven’t had this kind of dating.” She added, “This discovery underlines how important it is for the sciences to be involved in the work of archaeologists. The fact that we got such an early date allows us to ponder how it was conceived at that point in time, and so on.”

© The Indian Express Pvt Ltd

First uploaded on: 05-07-2024 at 15:50 IST


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