Cave Painting Of Fat-Bellied Pig Is The Oldest Known Figurative Artwork By Humans

The Leang Tedongnge painting is thought to be of a Sulawesi warty pig and is 45,000 years old. Image credit: Maxime Aubert 

Feast your eyes on what appears to be the oldest figurative artwork ever created by humans: a doodle of a big fat pig.

This cave painting of a fat-bellied pig was discovered scrawled in reddish-purple pigment within the limestone karsts of Maros-Pangkep on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Along with the main pig painting, the cave also contains two partially complete pigs that appear to be confronting each other, as well as four painted hand stencils. In a new study, archaeologists have used dating technology on this prehistoric artwork and concluded it was created at least 45,500 years ago, making it the oldest known figurative cave painting ever discovered by modern humans. 

"When I saw the art for the first time I was blown away," Adam Brumm, lead author and Professor of Archaeology at Griffith University in Australia, told IFLScience.

"The three wild pigs portrayed in the artwork also seem to be engaged in some kind of social interaction, suggesting that these individual figures constitute a single narrative composition or 'scene', which is quite uncommon to find in early cave art. This artwork really impressed me," he added. 

Brumm explained that the site was first discovered in December 2017 by study co-author Basran Burhan, an Indonesian archaeologist from the Konjo-speaking community of southern Sulawesi and a PhD student at Griffith University, who was led to the cave by the local Bugis farmers who live in the valley. Remarkably, however, the local farmers had never noticed the cave art inside before. The discovery of the new findings are published in the journal Science Advances today. 

The painted pig is almost the exact size of a real-life one. Image credit: AA Oktaviana

Known as the Leang Tedongnge painting, the drawing is thought to depict a Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis), a species of wild pig found on the island and known for its warty face. The painting measures around 136 centimeters by 54 centimeters (54 inches by 21 inches), almost exactly the actual size of the animal. 

It’s declared a figurative artwork as it’s a clear depiction of an object from the real world, as opposed to an abstract idea or pattern. The previous record-holder for the world’s earliest figurative artwork was a painting of a wild cattle found in a cave in Borneo, thought to date to around 40,000 years old. While the Leang Tedongnge painting is now considered the oldest, the researchers argue there’s no reason to suppose its unique and similar artworks likely exist in the wider region.

The ability to create artwork is considered a major milestone in the story of humankind as it displays a remarkable capacity for complex and abstract thought. In the past, many explanations of how these behavioral and cognitive traits emerged have tended to focus on Europe, where the archaeological record shows an explosion of cave art and impressive artworks from around 40,000 years onwards. This new discovery helps to challenge and refine this old narrative, showing that remarkable artistic traditions likely developed before this outside of Europe.

"In my opinion, our new discovery adds weight to the view that the first cave art traditions developed by our species probably did not arise in Europe as long supposed but at some earlier point in time in the human journey, possibly somewhere in Asia, or more likely in Africa where Homo sapiens evolved," said Brumm. 

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