Ancient art in Indonesia

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Indonesia is home to some of the world’s oldest cave art, and several significant discoveries have been made in the area in recent years, but archaeologists now believe that they have found a painting on the island of Sulawesi that pre-dates all other examples in the region, and may even be the earliest piece of representational art currently known.

The paintings in Leang Tedongnge cave depict the Sulawesi warty pig, a species commonly featured in Indonesian rock art. [Image: Maxime Aubert]
[Image: AA Oktaviana-01]

The painting was found in 2017 at the back of a limestone cave-site called Leang Tedongnge, which sits in a secluded valley in the Maros-Pangkep region, an area on the island’s south-west peninsula where many other examples of prehistoric rock art have been found.

The most complete of the ochre drawings in the cave measures 136cm by 54cm, and is clearly identifiable as a Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis), a small, short-legged species with facial warts that is commonly depicted in art in the region, and still lives on the island today. This figure appears to be associated with two hand stencils, as well as two or three other pigs (which are much less well preserved, with only their heads visible), depicting a scene of social interaction or confrontation between the animals. The hand stencils and other pigs have not been dated yet, but it is believed that the whole panel was created at the same time.

The age of the best-preserved pig drawing, and consequently the rest of the art in the cave, was determined using uranium-series dating, the results of which were presented in a paper recently published in Science Advances (https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abd4648). This process involves removing samples of mineral deposits that have formed over the top of the painting, and using a technique called U-series isotope analysis to determine when the deposit was formed, thus providing a minimum age for the painting underneath. This analysis revealed that the painting in Leang Tedongnge was created at least 45,500 years ago, which makes it the earliest known dated artwork in Sulawesi.

Before this, the oldest dated rock art from Indonesia was another figurative animal painting, found at a different site in the Maros-Pangkep region, Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4. The painting was dated to at least 43,900 years ago. The dating of the art in Leang Tedongnge reveals that it surpasses this previous example as the oldest art currently identified in the region, and possibly the oldest surviving representational image of an animal or narrative scene known in the world. In addition to this, it may represent the oldest indication of AMHs (anatomically modern humans) on the island, which could play an important role in our understanding of early human migration in Indonesia, although the scarcity of human fossils in the area means that we cannot discount the possibility that the art may have been created by a different hominin species.

This article appeared in issue 106 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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