The world’s oldest visual tale was just dated—and it already faces oblivion

A tale told in red pigment on a hidden cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
A tale told in red pigment on a hidden cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Image: Adam Brumm et al
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The world’s oldest pictorial story, dating back 44,000 years, was revealed in a study this week about a limestone cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The work in red pigment found in the cave depicts human-like figures with animal characteristics hunting pigs and dwarf buffaloes. The prehistoric art contains all the critical elements of a good yarn—like creativity and narration—according to the study’s authors, a team of archaeologists from Griffith University in Australia.

The humans even seem to be outlining a plan for hunts to come, which might make this tale a sort of prehistoric Powerpoint presentation. “The portrayal of multiple hunters confronting at least two separate prey species possibly suggests a game drive, a communal hunt in which animals are indiscriminately flushed from cover and directed toward waiting hunters,” the researchers write in the journal Nature. ” [I]f this is the case, this scene would be the oldest-known visual record of a hunting strategy.”

The dating of this panel has just extended the history of pictorial storytelling. That’s important information because the ability to invent stories is seen as the last and most crucial step in human linguistic evolution, and a precursor to modern cognitive function. The Sulawesi art indicates about when that leap may have been made.

Located among hundreds of caves in Indonesia that archaeologists have been exploring since the 1950s, the panel was only discovered in 2017 because it’s in an out-of-the-way cave raised about 60 ft (18 m) aboveground. It seems to predate cave paintings at Chauvet and Lascaux in France, which are thought to be about 30,000 to 36,000 years old.

Drawn with charcoal, those French works are generally dated by examining the age of carbon in the charcoal. But the research team in Indonesia had to use a special technique to date their discovery because the iron-based red pigment used to paint there contains no measurable organic matter. Instead, they tested mineral deposits left in condensation or “sweat” that forms over the panel. Dubbed “cave popcorn,” these deposits contain decaying elements that reveal the rock’s age and allowed scientists to date the panel.

But now that the art has been discovered, it’s also threatening to disappear.

For reasons that are unclear to the researchers, large chunks of the cave surfaces in the area are inexplicably “exfoliating,” they say, and the panel may not last long. The archaeologists believe that exposure to pollution—mining operations are nearby—or to increasingly extreme monsoon seasons resulting from climate change may explain why the surfaces are peeling.

“It could be one of the bitter ironies that we only just discovered the extreme antiquity of this rock art in the last few years and it could be gone within our lifetimes,” study author Adam Brumm told the Washington Post. Researchers are raising funds now to laser scan the paintings and create digital archives before it’s too late.