New discovery: Earliest pictoral art in human history

December 20, 2019 • 9:45 am

A new report in Nature displays what is said to be the oldest “figurative artwork” in the world—work that is representational of real-world items rather than just abstract figures.  It shows not only hunting scenes, but “therianthropes” (human-animal hybrid figures), and also is the oldest “narrative art”, as it’s said to depict a hunting scene.  (Click on screenshot below to read the article, and you can find the pdf here).  How old is it? Uranium/thorium dating places a minimum age of the cave paintings at 43,900 years, making it older than the oldest nonrepresentational art: a disk dated at 40,800 years from Spain. 

The authors start the paper with a history of “oldest” art, which I’ll reproduce below (I have photos of the stuff that I’ve put in bold):

Previous uranium-series (U-series) dating has suggested that the oldest known figurative cave art is found in Indonesia. Up until now, the earliest minimum U-series ages for representative artworks reflect dates of 40 ka for a naturalistic painting of a wild bovid in Kalimantan and, from south Sulawesi, 35.4 ka for a painting of a pig—possibly a female babirusa or young Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis). Non-figurative rock art dated to 65 ka in Spain has been attributed to Neanderthals, but this claim has been questioned on various grounds. With a minimum age of 40.8 ka, the earliest dated art that is generally attributed to modern humans in Europe is an abstract ‘disc’ sign from the rock art site of El Castillo in Spain. Although animal motifs are abundant in the Pleistocene cave art of Indonesia and Europe, in both regions humans hunting fauna are very seldom depicted; composite human–animal figures are also uncommon. In Europe, images of lone animals that are seemingly impaled by projectiles are documented in art of Magdalenian cultures (dating to about 21–14 ka); however, the motifs that are regarded by some as spears or arrows are subject to varying interpretations In terms of parietal imagery, one of very few obvious narrative compositions is the famous scene from the shaft (or ‘well’) at Lascaux (France) (Extended Data Fig. 1). This Magdalenian rock art panel apparently depicts a bird-headed man being charged by a wounded bison. The shaft scene is the subject of considerable speculation, but some scholars believe it represents a real hunt; if this is the case, so far as we can ascertain this would be the oldest narrative composition that portrays a hunting scene in European art. The earliest image that is generally accepted to represent a therianthrope is the Löwenmensch (‘lion-man’) figurine, a 31.1-cm-tall mammoth-ivory statuette of an apparently part-human, part-lion creature from Hohlenstein–Stadel (Germany) (Extended Data Fig. 1). This artefact, which belongs to the early Aurignacian tradition (dating to about 40–39 ka), is regarded by some as the earliest evidence for the capacity to link the concepts of ‘animal’ and ‘person’ into a single abstract category. The Hohlenstein–Stadel figure also has a prominent role in scientific debates about the origins of religion, as it has been argued that the ability to imagine the existence of things that do not exist—including therianthropes—forms the basis for religious thought. In Kalimantan, U-series dating has shown that people began painting small anthropomorphic figures inside caves at least 14 ka, and perhaps as early as 21–20 ka—these figures are sometimes shown pursuing deer, but dates are not available for any of these scenes. To our knowledge, no unambiguous depictions of therianthropes have previously been identified in the early cave art of Kalimantan or Sulawesi.

Here are some pictures of the images put in bold in the text.  First, the abstract disks at El Castillo, dated to at least 40,800 years and the oldest art of any kind. There are also handprints made by blowing pigment around a hand, which really conjures up our ancient relatives as people.



The 40,000 year old bovid figure from Borneo, previously the oldest figurative art:

From source: A painting of wild cattle, dated at about 40,000 years old, in a cave in East Kalimantan, Borneo, part of a large panel containing at least two other animals. Photograph: Pindi Setiawan

And here, from the supplementary data in the new Nature paper, are several other pieces of artwork mentioned above, including the Lascaux cave painting, which shows the bird-headed man (all captions are from the Nature paper).  The art at Lascaux is much younger: 21,000-14,000 years ago. You can also see the lion-man therianthope statue, which is about 39,000-40,000 years old, and is already quite sophisticated.

a, b, The shaft scene from Lascaux (about 21–14 ka) (a). This rock art panel is widely interpreted as depicting a bird-headed human figure (b) being charged by a bison that it has wounded with a spear; in a, the latter object is visible below the partly disembowelled bison. Another object depicted in this scene possibly represents a spearthrower with a sculpted representation of a bird at the proximal end. c, d, The lion-man figurine from Hohlenstein–Stadel. Carved in mammoth ivory, this 31.1-cm-tall image of Aurignacian age (about 40–39 ka) appears to represent a male human figure with the head of a cave lion. The image in b is a digital tracing of the relevant section in a. Sources: Alamy, used under licence (a, c); Shutterstock, used under licence (d).

The new finds are from Sulawesi in Indonesia, with the location given below. The paintings are badly weathered (I presume they’ll find a way to protect them), but have also been marred by water seeping through the paintings and then mineralizing, forming calcium carbonate concretions called “coralloid speliotherms”, or “cave popcorn”. However, the fact that the paintings were later marred by mineral deposits also gives us a way to date them, since cave popcorn can be dated using decay rates of uranium into thorium.

The limestone cave of Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 is a rock art site in the tower karst region of Pangkep. Map data: STRM 1 Arc-Second Global by NASA/NGS/USGS and GEBCO_2014 Grid version 20150318 ( Base map created by M. Kottermair and A. Jalandoni.

So at last we get to the cave art in Sulawesi, which has been enhanced in the figure below, and then given representations in b).  In c) and d) you can see enlargements showing what the authors take to be human/animal hybrids, and then a very large anoa, which is a midget buffalo found only on Sulawesi. I’ve put a picture of one species of anoa below the figure.

a, Photostitched panorama of the rock art panel (using photographs enhanced with DStretch). Ther, therianthrope. b, Tracing of rock art panel showing results of U-series dating. Scale bar, 20 cm. c, d, Detail of a group of therianthropic (part-human, part-animal) figures confronting an anoa. As evident in a, c, d, the surface of the cave wall is extensively exfoliated, erasing some of the art. However, the following elements (from left to right; see a, b) are clearly discernible: a hunter (therianthrope 1; 26 × 12 cm) apparently spearing or roping a pig (pig 1; 123 × 58 cm), in which the body of the hunter appears to be human-like in form but has a tail (Extended Data Figs. 3, 4); a lone pig (pig 2; 84 × 42 cm) (Extended Data Fig. 3); a small anoa (anoa 1; 51 × 24 cm) with an unidentified (possibly human) figure beside it (Extended Data Fig. 5); a small figure (therianthrope 2), the head of which is missing and which is positioned above an anoa (anoa 2; 74 × 29 cm) that it is possibly spearing or roping—the figure appears to be a fully composite being that apparently combines the characteristics of a human and two kinds of non-human animals (an anoa and a reptile) (Extended Data Fig. 5); a group of six very small figures (about 4–8 cm tall) (therianthropes 3–8) confronting an anoa (anoa 3) with ropes or spears—these tiny figures generally have anthropomorphic bodies, but heads and/or other body parts that are animal-like in form (for close-up images of each of the figures, see Extended Data Fig. 6). Another anoa (anoa 4) is positioned behind anoa 3, but only its head and back line are complete. The locations of four coralloid speleothems (samples BSP4.2 to BSP4.5) collected in association with three animal figures, and which yielded minimum U-series ages for the rock art panel, are indicated in the central tracing (b). The earliest minimum date for each sample is provided. The only elements that are evidently not coeval in time with the therianthropes and animals are two separate clusters of hand stencils32; these motifs were created using a lighter shade of red pigment and are differentially weathered, and one group of stencils was clearly superimposed onto pig 1 following a period of weathering of the cave wall surface, indicating a considerable time lapse between these two phases of art production (Extended Data Fig. 3). In Maros–Pangkep, the oldest dated hand stencil of the distinctive narrow-fingered style32 has a minimum U-series age of 17.8 thousand years9.

A lowland anoa (Bubalus depressicornis). There’s also a mountain anoa, and it’s not clear which species the painting above represents—or whether it’s a third species that’s now extinct. Both living species are endangered by hunting and habitat loss. These little creatures are only about a meter high at the shoulder.

The authors conclude that this is the world’s oldest known figurative art and also the oldest narrative art, which implies that humans were already engaged in storytelling 43,000 years ago. The authors consider storytelling important because “the ability to invent fictional stories may have been the last and most crucial stage in the evolutionary history of human language and the development of modern patterns of cognition.” Of course, they’re speculating here.

Finally, these are also the oldest therianthropes: almost twice as old as the Lacaux “birdman” and several millennia older than the lion-headed figure which held the previous record.  At the end, of course, there’s the requisite speculation about spirituality, as the authors say the scene “hints at the deeply rooted symbolism of the human-animal bond and predator-prey relationships in the spiritual beliefs, narrative traditions, and image-making practices of our species.” Well, again that’s more speculation. But it does suggest that about 43,000 years ago, H. sapiens was already thinking in numinous terms, for what else would a therianthrope represent?

34 thoughts on “New discovery: Earliest pictoral art in human history

  1. The Latin binomial is very memorable – depressicornis. Also I can see the scale of this animal- the cave paintings tend to look fearsome- but it’s really apparently not a gigantic beast…. which makes me wonder if the non-fiction paintings could be embellished, e.g. for a hunter to boast.

  2. Uranium-thorium series dating is not well known to the general public. It is reliable and good for ages beyond what carbon-14 dating can do up to about a million years. It is particularly good for dating karstic flowstone deposits since the uranium ion is capable of substituting for the calcium ion in solid carbonates.

    making it older than the oldest nonrepresentational art: a disk dated at 40,800 years from Spain

    for certain values of “representation” and of “art”. If people karst (sorry!) their minds back to Henshilwood et al’s 2002 report of marked and engraved pieces of ochre from Blombos Cave .ZA (“Emergence of Modern Human Behavior: Middle Stone Age Engravings from South Africa.” Science, 295 1278–1280.), the non-functional multiple-stroke grooves were debated as, in some sense, indicating a mind which was storing abstract concepts. (My Dad, after thinking for a whiskey or too suggested “mine” could be the concept in question.) I’m sure someone, somewhere is doing a PhD in Art History arguing for this being early art, and someone else is doing the opposite. Hell, “what is art” remains a question today.

  3. I was touring Spain a couple of years ago and was looking for somewhere interesting to visit near to where we were staying. The caves of Castillo were nearby so we went there. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realised that one has to book ahead to see the main, oldest cave, well drawings anyway, but we still managed to visit one in the complex that was a lot less old. Very eerie. I hadn’t appreciated how different it would be to experience these first hand rather than on a screen.

    1. And to think how intense it was for earlier peoples to see and of course make those images. They would need to venture into a cave with some fat-fueled lamps as their only light. The flickering and moving shadows alone would be pretty freaky.

      1. I visited Font-de-Gaume cave in France a few years ago. The numbers of visitors is severely restricted and you have to take a number and hope you get in. The group I was in was small – 6 or 7. The guide walked us back describing the imagery. After 30 minutes he stopped and turned off the lights and asked us to silently wait for our eyes to adjust to the dimness of his pen light and he pointed out the faint image of some mammoths etched into the wall a few feet away. You could only hear a slight drip of water and your own breath. “Less is sometimes more”, he said. The mammoths were barely visible. “Do you see?…less is more.” It was a spooky feeling.

  4. “At the end, of course, there’s the requisite speculation about spirituality, as the authors say the scene “hints at the deeply rooted symbolism of the human-animal bond and predator-prey relationships in the spiritual beliefs, narrative traditions, and image-making practices of our species.” Well, again that’s more speculation.”

    Based on what we know of aboriginal societies around the world it is not an unreasonable speculation, I guess. With all the benefit of several hundred years of scientific progress we are still in the process of shedding our spiritual beliefs (I mean society as a whole, clearly most readers here have completed the process); in prehistoric times humans presumably were intellectually equipped to ask ‘big’ questions such as where we come from and go to after life but without the huge evidence base we have been provided with by our scientific forebears, the ‘obvious’ answers they arrived at were that there must be some kind of supernatural forces interacting with physical life.

  5. One possibility is that the therianthropes don’t signify anything. They could be just an artist’s whimsy or mere doodles.

    I too love the hand silhouettes. Somehow they seem to reach right through the eons, as if the grafittists just left the cave. Haunting.

    1. just an artist’s whimsy or mere doodles

      It’s interesting, though, that they seem to be consistent across vast distances and time.

    1. What interests me is how consistent the art is across time and space. For 10,000 years the art had much the same style, technique, and subject matter, all over the world. Not many instances that might be interpreted as a sense of humor or exaggerated self interest. Can you imagine if moderns had stopped at European Impressionism and repeated themselves for 10,000 years before moving on to Post Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism? I suspect during this time some important last changes in human mentality were taking place. Not just cultural and technical advances.

      1. Mebbe so. But when it comes to “technical advances,” we shouldn’t gainsay the impact of the invention of photography in the 19th century. Straightforward representational art could no longer compete when it came to the realistic depiction of objects, so had to move in different directions.

        1. I’m not sure black and white photography affected 19th century painting much, although it’s often given credit. Modernism was not driven by technology as much as by a natural evolution from, and reaction to, precursors. On the other hand, why did it take so long for technology to develop over prehistoric time? Paleolithic culture moved from stone tools to slightly more complex stone tools over tens of thousands of years? Photography is just one of many modern innovations all occurring in the last few thousand years when humans took their current form (more or less). I think humans were in a gradual humanization process which drove new technology and art only late in the process.

          1. It is also worth remarking that photographers – good ones at least – learned a great deal from traditional, and contemporary, painting; one might think of the use of lighting in connexion with Rembrandt’s portraits – my Japanese father-in-law, who was a photographer known for his portrait of writers and artists, spoke always of his debt to Rembrandt. It is just not the case that photography came along and shattered everything – there were after all artists such as Bouguereau (whom I dislike for his often sentimentality and prurience), who came out of neo-classicism and used an extraordinarily polished – I want to say ‘slick’ – technique to create paintings that seem very close to certain kinds of shallow, ‘realistic’ photographs. Bougeureau was of course responsible for banning the Impressionists from the Salon, year after year.
            I think Mr Kucek needs to consider what ‘realistic portrayal’ is in paintings and photographs. It is not so easy and obvious a category as he supposes.

            1. Certainly so. Photography, I feel became an ally of the painters since it probably freed many from feeling the need to produce sharp realism, even as many did not need the excuse. And, of course, photographers have to give credit to painters who paved the way in visual arts. They often found themselves imitating painterly effects. There was influence in both directions. Bouguereau must have found photography in competition with his own hyper realism, but many others would not have bothered. Édouard Manet stands out for me as a painter who embodied the new aesthetic and probably played off photography and exceeded it by his compositional and plastic innovations.

  6. But note that the “imagine something not there” is a general cognitive trait useful beyond religion: it allows one to imagine conspecifics and predators and non-living things in other situations. Now the question is : Chomsky (for example) seems to think that this generalized cognition is the way to understand what evolved; others (Pinker) think that more specialized modules exist. This is interesting, because it speaks to the question of whether religion has protoscientific roots or not. (Boyer, for example, denies this, because the agency detection module is the origin of religion and other factors play a role in science.)

    Of course, both Chomsky and Lewontin (who the former cites) deny that one can even *get an answer* to the evolutionary history here, which I regard as defeatist. (They may yet be right to say we don’t know anyting about it, however.)

  7. Vaguely related, there was also an article (BBC, I think) about finding remains of Homo Erectus dated to 100k years ago in Indonesia – Java, in this case. This is much later than previously thought, and means erectus survived to live at the same time (if not the same places) as sapiens and neanderthalensis.

    Between that and the artwork, Indonesia sounds like a historical hotbed of hominid fun!

  8. The paper is behind a paywall to which I don’t have access. Why are they sure that the paintings were done by modern humans? As for being the oldest art, I don’t think that’s correct. The oldest abstract art is 500,000 years old, undoubtedly by Homo erectus, and recently discovered cave paintings in Spain are 64,000 years old, thought to be by Neanderthals.

    1. The paper discusses these issues. I’m not sure if the paper said exactly why these couldn’t have been Neanderthal art, except that I don’t think any Neanderthal art of any complexity is known. They describe the find as probably the oldest figurative art. It depicts animals and modified humans. Yes, there are abstract markings that predate it. The 64,000 years old Spanish Neanderthal art is currently in dispute. It is purely abstract – some lines etched in rock.

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