Mysterious 52,000-year-old image unearthed inside tropical island cave

While the painting is highly degraded, but it's possible to decipher some of the figures. We spoke to a man who has studied it.

The forested rock face at Leang Karampuang in the Maros-Pangkep region of South Sulawesi.
The cave art was found at Leang Karampuang in the Maros-Pangkep region of South Sulawesi. Source: BRIN Google Arts and Culture

On an island 1,200km north of Australia, hidden beyond a narrow entrance in the rock, the world’s oldest-known pictorial story has been discovered. Researchers believe it was painted at least 51,200 years ago.

The artwork was found above a tropical Indonesian village on the island of Sulawesi. A study revealing how it was dated and what it depicts was published in the journal Nature on Thursday.

"It shows a pig interacting with three human figures. And our claim is that this is the oldest evidence for a narrative story in the history of art so far," co-author Professor Adam Brumm told Yahoo News.

Stretching almost one metre across, the story is in a “very poor” condition and it’s hard to make out many of the finer details. But what’s clear is that it involves three people surrounding a large warty pig – a creature experts believe the islanders were “besotted with”.

Related: Ancient object used in 12,000 year old curse unearthed inside remote Aussie cave

Speaking to international media on Wednesday ahead of the journal publication, Brumm said there is a lot of evidence showing people hunting pigs in the region.

“They were clearly economically important to these early people... symbolically and perhaps even spiritually,” he said.

Whether the figures are hunting or communing spiritually with the pig remains a mystery because the culture that created it has long since disappeared.

Narrative scenes in cave art are extremely rare and for years it was believed a 14,000 picture from Lascaux France involving a bison was the oldest surviving example.

Dating the Sulawesi work to such a precise age was possible because of a new method created by experts at Griffith and Southern Cross universities.

“Our new LA-U-series technique is more accurate, allowing us to date the earliest calcium carbonate layers formed on the art and get closer to the point in time the art was created. It will revolutionise rock art dating,” Professor Aubert said in a statement.

The team is confident this technology could lead to a re-evaluation of other artworks. But it’s finding examples that remains a challenge because they are often hidden.

A map showing the location of Sulawesi's Maros-Pangkep.
The cave was discovered north of Australia in the tropical Indonesian region of Maros-Pangkep. Source: Google Earth/Data SIO/NOAA/US Navy

Accessing artwork inside the cave at Sulawesi's Maros-Pangkep region involves climbing a rock face above, and then clambering through a small entrance.

Because researchers have not found evidence of stone tools or fire places, it’s possible that humans only ventured into the caves to make and view art. Brumm believes its possible there was ritual and initiation involved and access was likely controlled.

A close-up of the degraded pig image in the Indonesian cave.
A close-up image of the pig shows how the painted surfaced has degraded. Source: BRIN Google Arts & Culture

Similar purpose-specific caves are also found around Europe which date back 30,000 to 40,000 years. These were painted deep underground, into dangerous areas that were removed from everyday life.

Mysteriously, in both Europe and Sulawesi, these traditions of creating pictorial rock art do not appear to have continued past the end of the last ice age — 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.

"It's not 100 per cent clear what happened to those people who were responsible for making that art over a long period of time," Brumm told Yahoo.

"But based on the excavations we've done of the caves, and also based on the dating, it seems to be something that just stopped."

Storytelling continues to have an important role in most human societies. Brumm believes it evolved at a time when bonding was needed.

European cave paintings in Lascaux, southwestern France showing horse and bison.
European cave paintings in Lascaux, southwestern France, also depict pictorial stories. Source: Getty

"It was one of the most important glues that kept societies together, hundreds of thousands of years ago potentially," Brumm said.

"It might have enabled us to communicate or to share ideas. For instance the existence of supernatural beings, or some sort of other entity that's out there that guides our lives, our fate, our destiny.

"Its a way of all members of your group buying into this sort of one worldview. And it's very useful for sharing information too, but I think there's something deeper and imaginative too."

Locating the picture relied on the expertise of Adhi Agus Oktaviana, an Indonesian rock art specialist from the National Research and Innovation Agency, who led the project.

His colleague, Professor Renaud Joannes-Boyau from Southern Cross University’s faculty of science, is confident Oktaviana will be able to find more “amazing places” that contain ancient art.

“They’re not right there in plain sight. You have to deserve it to actually see it. It’s very likely that there are some more beautiful ones hidden that we don’t know of,” he said.

There are some cave art examples from Borneo which have already been documented that improved dating methods could prove to be even older than the Sulawesi paintings.

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