Earliest Known Cave Art Hunting Scene Discovered In Indonesia Depicts "Supernatural" Beings

The part-human, part-animal figures (here a human figure with bird-like head) shows early modern humans had the capacity to imagine supernatural entities 43,9000 years ago. (c) Ratno Sardi (images supplied)

The earliest known rock art depicting a hunting scene has been discovered in Indonesia, not only pushing back the date of figurative art but changing what we know about the origin of human cognition.

The cave painting, dating to 43,900 years ago, depicts a group of part-human, part-animal figures hunting pigs and buffaloes with spears. It’s the human-animal figures, known as “therianthropes” (derived from the Greek therion, meaning "beast," and anthrōpos, meaning "human"), that show these early modern humans were capable of imagining the existence of supernatural beings. It's the earliest evidence for "religious-like" thinking we know of and challenges the previous belief that modern religious culture began in Europe.

“This discovery suggests that religious-like thinking (the ability to imagine the existence of non-real entities: therianthropes) was already present among our species in Indonesia at least 44,000 years ago, several millennia before the first modern human artworks appear in Europe, where it has often been thought the roots of modern religious culture can be traced,” Adam Brumm, archaeologist and associate professor at the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE), told IFLScience.

In Nature, Brumm and Professor Maxime Aubert from Griffith University, who both led the research, describe the sophisticated hunting scene and how it provides direct insight into the earliest human storytelling.

The hunting scene shows at least eight figures hunting six animals with spears and even ropes. (c) Ratno Sardi 

The new rock art was discovered in 2017 in a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, east of Borneo. This is the same region where the team found the earliest known hand stencils, dating to 40,000 years ago, in 2014 and not far from the East Kalimantan region of Borneo, where they discovered the previously oldest known figurative art also dating back 40,000 years last year. 

The age and prevalence of the cave art found in South East Asia rivals that of the cave paintings of Europe, where a plethora of rock art has been found dating to 35,000-40,000 years old. This challenges the idea that Europe was the center of the earliest explosion in human creativity, the researchers argue, though it’s unlikely rock art sprung up simultaneously on separate sides of the planet. 

“Most likely our early modern human ancestors developed the cognitive capacity to produce sophisticated rock art somewhere in Africa prior to the migrations of our species from out of the continent – or perhaps in an adjacent part of Asia,” Brumm told IFLScience.

“It could simply be that rock art of this antiquity was once much more widespread in the vast area separating western Europe from Indonesia, and it has only survived – or is only datable – in these two remote corners of the 'Ice Age' world.”

The hunting scene panorama picked out in false color to see more clearly. The Sulawesi pigs and anoa dwarf buffalo, both native to the island, are particularly recognizable. (c) Adam Brumm, Ratno Sardi and Adhi Agus Oktaviana

The hunting scene depicts a group of at least eight therianthropes hunting six animals (two Sulawesi warty pigs and four dwarf buffaloes) painted in a dark red pigment. The hunters have simple human-like bodies but the heads and other body parts of animals, birds, and reptiles native to Sulawesi. Remarkably, some even appear to be wrangling their prey with ropes.

According to the researchers, this is the earliest known detailed narrative, or story, to appear as cave art, and there are many exciting things to take from this. It provides the earliest evidence of humans’ ability to conceive of the existence of supernatural beings, a prerequisite of religious thought and belief. 

“We can now infer that the sort of religious-like thinking that gave rise to human conceptions of therianthropes, and other such fantastical beings, possibly did not arise in Europe but has a much deeper antiquity in the human story,” Brumm said.

This, they suggest, means that humans appear to have an “adaptive predisposition for inventing, telling, and consuming stories.” That instead of a gradual evolution of Paleolithic art that went from simple to complex around 35,000 years ago, the major components of a highly advanced artistic culture and way of thinking were already present in our species at least 44,000 years ago.

Maxime Aubert and Adam Brumm sitting underneath the incredible artwork painted by our ancestors in a cave in Indonesia 44,000 years ago. Kinez Riza
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