A 43,900-year-old Cave Painting in Sulawesi, Indonesia is the Oldest Hunting Story Depicted

Archaeologist Maxime Aubert, from Griffith University and his colleagues have published, in Nature, the discovery of the oldest depicted hunting story. The cave painting is thought to be 43,900 years old. It was made by prehistoric people on the island of Sulawesi. The painting is about 4.5 meter or 14.8 feet in length and about 3 meters or 9.8 feet above the floor of a hard-to-reach upper chamber of a cave called Liang Bulu’Sipong 4.

Liang Bulu’Sipong 4 has layers of minerals deposited upon the painting. Minerals like uranium decay into thorium-230. The rate at which they decay allow us to date how recently rock was deposited upon the painting… Which in turn facilitates the calculation to date the age of the painting.

The Liang Bulu’Sipong 4 cave painting in its entirity
 Aubert et al. 2019

Initially, it appears the wild pigs and anoa (dwarf buffalo) are surrounded by a group of strangely tiny hunters in monochrome dark red. In that same dark red, a hand print is stenciled on the left end of the mural, likely a signature. This seems to suggest the some hunters surrounded the game and drive them towards a trap; another group of hunters lined with spears or other weapons.

But, the tiny hunters don’t appear entirely human. Some look like they have snouts or muzzles and one even has a beak and another a tail. This could could represent human hunters clad in skins or masks or therianthropes, which are human-animal hybrids that show up in cultures around the world. Other evidence of therianthropes are 15,500-year-old paintings in the Lascaux caves of France and a 40,000-year-old carved figure from Germany.

Large Anoa surrounded by mythical hunters.
 Aubert et al. 2019

Whether or not the hunters are humans or a bit of both; the prey are mythologically big in proportion. Both the wild pigs and the anoa are huge, like legends looming over the hunters. Within this cave, raised 20 meters above the valley, there is no trace human life. No signs of stone tools, discarded bones, and cooking fires are found anywhere within the cave or in the chamber beneath. That begs to ask was this raised mural; with mythical hunters and proportionally large legendary prey, upon this cave wall part of a spiritual place?

The cave painting is found in a raised chamber, suggesting the importance of this image.
 Aubert et al. 2019

The artist may have been documenting a well known legend, or conveying an origin story…. We, ultimately, will never know the meaning behind this mural meant to the people of Sulawesi.

What the cave does show is how prehistoric people had cognitive abilities to develop myths. The capacity to think and talk about things that don’t exist in the natural, physical world shows prehistoric creativity — to imagine things no one had ever seen—like therianthropes and giant wild animals. In other words, these people developed fiction. The cave is a snapshot into how human cultures developed shared beliefs about the supernatural, the footworks for complicated societal structures like religion.

3 thoughts on “A 43,900-year-old Cave Painting in Sulawesi, Indonesia is the Oldest Hunting Story Depicted

  1. I applied the ancient depicted sign language system to the Anao composition with the small, highly, fragmented figures in front of it. From what can be viewed of the composition it is not a hunting scene but rather a cosmological message about a deceased great leader and his rebirth and ascension. The small figures and the Lines to the Anao relate to the signs that are superimposed over the various parts of the Anao’s Body. This is part of the signing system and not unusual except for the Lines that point to the parts.

    The various animals are used by the signing system to express phrases through use of the “spirit essence” of the animals. Today we would call this the observable and major characteristics of the animal’s behavior. These attributes could also have been used as signs for the various clans.

    Another unusual aspect to the compositions is the use of patterns in the placement of the Hand prints creating greater meaning. For example, some Hands, the stewards of, were combined to form a further sign for, the one that flies, (ascends).

    I am working on a paper that will translate those portions of the Anao and Hand patterns that are not fragmented to be placed on academia.edu

  2. That’s an antelope-type creature with two straight horns. That’s the focus of the hunt so it is in front and bigger. The other figures are the rest of the herd, further away.

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