World's oldest painting discovered: It's a 44,000-year-old hunting scene depiction from Indonesia

The 4.5 m-wide cave painting found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is the world's oldest painting that depicts a story.

Popcorn dating of a cave painting discovered in a Sulawesi cave in Indonesia, has revealed that the painting is at least 43,900 years old. The painting depicting a prehistoric hunting scene is being considered the world's oldest artwork narrating a story.

Cave painting
A section of the ancient cave art discovered in Indonesia Ratno Sardi/Griffith University/AFP

When and how was the painting discovered?

Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Brisbane (Australia), first received the pictures in December 2017. "These images appeared on my iPhone," said Mr Brumm. "I think I said the characteristic Australian four-letter word out very loud."

Those pictures were sent by his colleague Hamrullah, a Sulawesi-based archaeologist and caver, who found the paintings after shimming up a fig tree to reach the cave passage. The discovery was made inside a cave, named Leang Bulu'Sipong 4, situated on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

What did the paintings depict?

According to the details of the findings, published in Nature, the 4.5 m wide painting depicts a fight scene between wild animals and half humans. It depicts wild pigs found on Sulawesi and a species of small-bodied buffalo, called 'anoa'. These are being chased by tiny human-like figures, but with snouts and tails, and wielding what appears to be spears and ropes.

"I've never seen anything like this before," said Mr Brumm. "I mean, we've seen hundreds of rock art sites in this region, but we've never seen anything like a hunting scene". "It suggested to us that this extraordinary scene suggests a story or some kind of myth," said Brumm.

"The most fascinating aspect is it has all the key elements of modern human cognition," said Prof Maxime Aubert, another archaeologist at Australia's Griffith University. "Hand stencils, a narrative scene, human-like figures that were conceived of something that doesn't really exist in the real world. Everything is there by 44,000 years ago".

How was painting's age determined?

To determine how old was the painting, researchers used the technique of 'popcorn dating', in which the researchers analysed calcite 'popcorn' that had built up on the painting. Radioactive uranium slowly decades into thorium. So by measuring the levels of different isotopes of these elements, the researchers concluded that calcite on top of one pig began forming at least 43,900 years ago, and deposits on two anoa are older than 40,900 years.

Thus the researchers concluded that the painting was made by paleolithic humans, some 44,000 years ago and also challenged the theory that oldest cave paintings were made in Europe.

This article was first published on December 12, 2019