World’s oldest representational art: an Indonesian warty pig from 45,000 years ago

January 23, 2021 • 1:45 pm

Here from Science Advances via National Geographic, is the painting of a wild pig from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. AT 45,000 years old, it’s world’s oldest cave art, and in fact the oldest known representational art of any sort.


Here’s the paper reporting it (click on screenshot), and a free pdf is here:

The very oldest art comes not from Europe or Africa, but from Indonesia; but surely there was much earlier representational art. The subject is presumably a Celebes warty pig (Sus celebensis), a species still with us, and the artist presumably an anatomically modern human (H. sapiens sapiens).

Here’s the subject. Not a bad representation, eh?

From Wild Pig, Peccary & Hippo Specialist Groups.

And a few words from the authors (“AMH” means “anatomically modern humans”)

On the basis of the presently available evidence, we are unable to definitively conclude that the dated figurative rock art depiction from Leang Tedongnge is the handiwork of cognitively “modern” members of our species. However, this seems to be the most likely explanation given the sophistication of this early representational artwork and the fact that figurative depiction has so far only been attributed to AMH everywhere else in the world.

If so, the dated pig image from Leang Tedongnge would appear to provide some of the earliest evidence, if not the earliest, for the presence of our species in Wallacea. The minimum age of this artwork is compatible with the earliest established indications of AMH from excavated deposits in the Lesser Sunda islands, which formerly provided the oldest archaeological evidence for H. sapiens in Wallacea (~44.6 ka cal BP). Hence, dating results for the Leang Tedongnge painting underline the view that representational art, including figurative animal art and depictions of narrative scenes, was a key part of the cultural repertoire of the first AMH populations to cross from Sunda into Wallacea—the gateway to the continent of Australia.

22 thoughts on “World’s oldest representational art: an Indonesian warty pig from 45,000 years ago

  1. I’ve always found cave art fascinating because the time involved, and the consistency of expression, is beyond comprehension. Go back beyond recorded history, and what evidence do we have of human culture? This kind of thing. Double that time? This kind of thing. Triple that time? This kind of thing. And…so…on.

      1. I’ve often thought the same thing when looking at early human art. Its almost always animals or handprints. There seems to be no concept of angels or gods. But obviously we can’t know for sure what our ancestors might have believed about those things.

  2. It is a bird. The painter was actually an early (slightly pre-Freudian) psychoanalyst and made the painting to be used as a Rorschach test. Anybody who sees a pig is most likely somewhat mentally unhinged.

    1. Anybody who sees a pig is most likely somewhat mentally unhinged.

      Yeeees …. I see where you’re coming from here.
      It is, of course, the earliest known depiction of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – may sauce be upon her meaty balls!

    1. a human being painting the pig 45K years ago

      … between 200,000 and 300,000 years after the origin of the “AMH”.

      Which rather suggests that there was quite a lot going on in the “wetware” inside those skulls, with no detectable expression in the hard parts. Not even in the traces of blood vessels and brain membranes (which might constrain interpretations about the relative blood flow / energy usage of one brain region compared to another).
      There’s almost certainly a lot going on in the “software” too – the education transmitted from adults to infants and juveniles.
      When was the branch between the proto-Denisovans, proto-Neanderthals, and proto-AMHs? Something like 450,000 years ago? So, what happened in the tens of thousands of generations between that genetic event (including, IIRC, the development of the fox-p2 mutation allegedly associated with AMH’s language skills)?
      (For scale, agriculture has been a human skill for around 4000 generations.)

      1. “A new study—citing genetic evidence from a disorder that in some ways mirrors elements of domestication—suggests modern humans domesticated themselves after they split from their extinct relatives, Neanderthals and Denisovans, approximately 600,000 years ago.”

        “When the researchers looked at those hundreds of BAZ1B-sensitive genes in modern humans, two Neanderthals, and one Denisovan, they found that in the modern humans, those genes had accumulated loads of regulatory mutations of their own. This suggests natural selection was shaping them. And because many of these same genes have also been under selection in other domesticated animals, modern humans, too, underwent a recent process of domestication, the team reports today in Science Advances.

        Wrangham cautions that many different genes likely play a role in domestication, so we shouldn’t read too much evolutionary importance into BAZ1B. “What they’ve zeroed in on is one gene that is incredibly important … but it’s clear there are going to be multiple other candidate genes.””

        [ ]

        1. Hmmm. Interesting.
          I shall don my hearing defenders, for the outrage when the human exceptionalists get to read that one. I’ll have a read of it myself just now.
          Just looking for the paper’s link … I catch the oft-mentioned “Williams Syndrome”, which I know isn’t a new subject in this discussion. But the paper’s link … ah, found it, behind a link which didn’t copy into your quote. Link is and it’s coming up as green Open Access, so shouldn’t have any paywalls getting in the way.

          Gaah – I hate having to do that hunt to find TFP so I can RTFP. I try to make the link obvious myself when I put something forward myself, but I miss it too, sometimes. That thing of the link not copying with the text is a particular PITA.
          (And indeed, TFP is now gracing my desktop for breakfast reading.)

        2. Complicated paper that, very much outside my knowledge of genetics. A slew of newer techniques and analyses too. But I’ve got to admit, I like this way (fig 3E) of presenting what I think are the relative frequencies of mutations around a site. (Not sure if I got that image link right.)

    1. An hypothesis I read somewhere: the medieval artists’ apparent inhability at drawing cats was due to the belief that cats were Devil’s creatures and it was therefore normal to make them look grotesque.

  3. Sulawesi is just ‘south’ of the Wallace line, which means it would not be readily connected to the mainland of Asia by land bridges. That makes it more challenging for humans to reach without a boat. But then again, humans have been farther south in Australia for 47,000 years and maybe longer.

    1. Yeah,
      (‘Scuse me, earthquake notification. Santiago, Chile. Also Mendoza, Argentina. Nothing major – a 5.6-ish. Where was I?)
      I was trying to remember which side of Sulawesi the Wallace line went too. But to get to most parts of the Indonesian archipelago (from Africa) you’re going to need at least rafts, so it’s not a big issue. Water deeper than about 2m is problematic for humans. But to get even to SE Asia, there would have been enough major river crossings that raft technology would keep on being re-invented, or just plain not-lost that it’s not difficult to expect the humans in that area to have that technology.
      The archaeology is still somewhat argued, but the fossil record in Australia may go back as far as 60kyr. 47kyr would be considered very conservative these days. Corollary : the artists at 47kyr could very plausibly have been living in the aera for longer than our culture has had agriculture.
      EDIT : FTFP-refs, “Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago. Nature 547, 306–310 (2017).”

  4. An hypothesis I read somewhere: the medieval artists’ apparent inhability at drawing cats was due to the belief that cats were Devil’s creatures and it was therefore normal to make them look grotesque.

  5. Here’s the subject. Not a bad representation, eh?

    A more accurate representation than the wart hog in Disney’s Lion King:

  6. Ok, I’m not very quick I guess. When I first looked at panel A of the figure, I thought it looked like the 3 pig paintings were overlaid upon a regional map of the area. So I thought: forget about the pig drawings, look at their map making skills!

  7. This animal must have been important to their survival, to make a record of it and file it on a cave wall… how it ran to the dancing firelight, squealing as we licked our lips.

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