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.
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.
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 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.