For years, it has been generally been believed that the oldest cave paintings could be found in Europe. But on Wednesday, December 11, a new study published in Nature announced that there were older cave paintings in Indonesia, where locals had assumed the paintings could not have been as old as the ones in France, which date back some 37,000 years. After a recent expedition and more thorough study, scientists have announced that the 16-foot cave painting on the island of Sulawesi could be 44,000 years old.
Archaeologists Adam Brumm, Maxime Aubert and Adhi Agus Oktaviana made the discovery back in 2017 when they were looking for more art in the cave. Only when did they uranium test the expansive work did they discover it was over 40,000 years old. The stick figures in the painting would be familiar to us who have seen photos of cave paintings in textbooks or history classes. The scene depicts a hunting scene: stick figures representing early man attacking boar and buffaloes. One remarkable finding was that the researchers noticed some mythological animal-like additions to some of the humanoid stick figures, possibly a nod to an early religion or an artistic flourish that signals the beginning of imaginative storytelling different than documenting scenes of daily life.
Some researchers believe that the practice of visually documenting early man’s experiences can be traced back to our shared origins in Africa. One optimistic expert told NPR, she thinks there are older paintings out there to be discovered. “We think of the ability for humans to make a story, a narrative scene, as one of the last steps of human cognition,” Aubert told Science. “This is the oldest rock art in the world and all of the key aspects of modern cognition are there.”