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45,500-year-old warty pig: the world’s oldest cave painting found

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Aakash Molpariya
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The art replaces as the oldest figurative cave painting in the world another discovered in 2020 on the same island

The oldest figurative cave painting in the world is the image of a warty pig painted 45,500 years ago in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and discovered by a group of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists, scientific sources reported Thursday.

“As far as we know, the painting of the Sulawesi pig, we found in Leang Tedongnge’s limestone cave is currently the oldest figurative artistic work in the world,” Adam Brumm, one of the leaders of Griffith University’s scientific team and the ARKENAS Indonesian archaeological research center, said in a statement.

The artwork replaces as the world’s oldest figurative cave painting another discovered in 2020 on the same island by Brumm’s team depicting an abstract hunting scene from 43,900 years ago.

The new find was hidden within one of the internal walls of the Leang Tedongnge cave, located in a valley surrounded by steep limestone cliffs in the south of the island of Celebes and can only be accessed during the dry season for small passage that remains flooded during the rainy season.

The locals, from the Bugis ethnic group, assured that, except for them, no one else had entered the cave until this team of archaeologists arrived in 2017.

The warty pig

This endemic pig from the Indonesian island appears in the representation with a red crest of erect hairs and a pair of facial warts in front of the eyes, a characteristic feature of adult specimens.

“Painted with ocher red pigment, the pig appears to be observing a fight or social interaction between two other warty pigs,” said Brumm, an archaeologist at the Australian University of Griffith, referring to the study published in the scientific journal Science Advances.

These warty pigs have been represented for thousands of years by ancient humans in the area, especially during the ice age, which, according to the archaeologist, suggests that they were not only a source of food but also of artistic expression.

The “popcorn” trail

To determine the age of the Leang Tedongnge cave painting, the scientists relied on measuring the radioactive degradation of uranium from carbonated calcium deposits that formed on the surface of the rock “canvas” used to render this pig.

“At Leag Tedongnge, a kind of rocky ‘popcorn’ was formed behind one of the legs of the pig image after it was painted, which allowed us to determine the minimum age of the painting,” explained another of the team leaders, Maxime Aubert, of Griffith University.

Wallacean hides more secrets

In addition to the image of this 45,500-year-old pig, scientists discovered in a nearby cave another similar painting dating back 32,000 years, which adds to the 43,900-year-old, so far regarded as the oldest.

This latest painting discovered in 2020 has the peculiarity of representing abstract beings that combine human and animal characteristics, known as “therianthropes”, which hunt large mammals with spears and ropes, which may be, according to the expert, the oldest proof of the human ability to imagine “the existence of supernatural beings, the cornerstone of religious experience.”

The cave paintings of Sulawesi are among the oldest evidence of the presence of modern humans on the oceanic islands between Asia and Australia-New Guinea, an area known as “Wallacea”.

“Our species must have crossed Wallacea in boats to reach Australia about 65,000 years ago,” said Aubert, considering that future work may show archaeological evidence from that time or even before it.

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