A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World
The discovery in a remote part of Indonesia has scholars rethinking the origins of art—and of humanity
By Jo Marchant
The Smithsonian Magazine, January 2016
I struggle to keep my footing on a narrow ridge of earth snaking between flooded fields of rice. The stalks, almost ready to harvest, ripple in the breeze, giving the valley the appearance of a shimmering green sea. In the distance, steep limestone hills rise from the ground, perhaps 400 feet tall, the remains of an ancient coral reef. Rivers have eroded the landscape over millions of years, leaving behind a flat plain interrupted by these bizarre towers, called karsts, which are full of holes, channels and interconnecting caves carved by water seeping through the rock.
We’re on the island of Sulawesi, in Indonesia, an hour’s drive north of the bustling port of Makassar. We approach the nearest karst undeterred by a group of large black macaques that screech at us from trees high on the cliff and climb a bamboo ladder through ferns to a cave called Leang Timpuseng. Inside, the usual sounds of everyday life here—cows, roosters, passing motorbikes—are barely audible through the insistent chirping of insects and birds. The cave is cramped and awkward, and rocks crowd into the space, giving the feeling that it might close up at any moment. But its modest appearance can’t diminish my excitement: I know this place is host to something magical, something I’ve traveled nearly 8,000 miles to see.
Scattered on the walls are stencils, human hands outlined against a background of red paint. Though faded, they are stark and evocative, a thrilling message from the distant past. My companion, Maxime Aubert, directs me to a narrow semicircular alcove, like the apse of a cathedral, and I crane my neck to a spot near the ceiling a few feet above my head. Just visible on darkened grayish rock is a seemingly abstract pattern of red lines.
Then my eyes focus and the lines coalesce into a figure, an animal with a large, bulbous body, stick legs and a diminutive head: a babirusa, or pig-deer, once common in these valleys. Aubert points out its neatly sketched features in admiration. “Look, there’s a line to represent the ground,” he says. “There are no tusks—it’s female. And there’s a curly tail at the back.”
This ghostly babirusa has been known to locals for decades, but it wasn’t until Aubert, a geochemist and archaeologist, used a technique he developed to date the painting that its importance was revealed. He found that it is staggeringly ancient: at least 35,400 years old. That likely makes it the oldest-known example of figurative art anywhere in the world—the world’s very first picture.
It’s among more than a dozen other dated cave paintings on Sulawesi that now rival the earliest cave art in Spain and France, long believed to be the oldest on earth.
The findings made headlines around the world when Aubert and his colleagues announced them in late 2014, and the implications are revolutionary. They smash our most common ideas about the origins of art and force us to embrace a far richer picture of how and where our species first awoke.
Hidden away in a damp cave on the “other” side of the world, this curly-tailed creature is our closest link yet to the moment when the human mind, with its unique capacity for imagination and symbolism, switched on.
Who were the first “people,” who saw and interpreted the world as we do? Studies of genes and fossils agree that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa 200,000 years ago. But although these earliest humans looked like us, it’s not clear they thought like us.
Intellectual breakthroughs in human evolution such as tool-making were mastered by other hominin species more than a million years ago. What sets us apart is our ability to think and plan for the future, and to remember and learn from the past—what theorists of early human cognition call “higher order consciousness.”
Such sophisticated thinking was a huge competitive advantage, helping us to cooperate, survive in harsh environments and colonize new lands. It also opened the door to imaginary realms, spirit worlds and a host of intellectual and emotional connections that infused our lives with meaning beyond the basic impulse to survive. And because it enabled symbolic thinking—our ability to let one thing stand for another—it allowed people to make visual representations of things that they could remember and imagine. “We couldn’t conceive of art, or conceive of the value of art, until we had higher order consciousness,” says Benjamin Smith, a rock art scholar at the University of Western Australia. In that sense, ancient art is a marker for this cognitive shift: Find early paintings, particularly figurative representations like animals, and you’ve found evidence for the modern human mind.
Until Aubert went to Sulawesi, the oldest dated art was firmly in Europe. The spectacular lions and rhinos of Chauvet Cave, in southeastern France, are commonly thought to be around 30,000 to 32,000 years old, and mammoth-ivory figurines found in Germany correspond to roughly the same time. Representational pictures or sculptures don’t appear elsewhere until thousands of years afterward. So it has long been assumed that sophisticated abstract thinking, perhaps unlocked by a lucky genetic mutation, emerged in Europe shortly after modern humans arrived there about 40,000 years ago. Once Europeans started to paint, their skills, and their human genius, must have then spread around the world.
But experts now challenge that standard view. Archaeologists in South Africa have found that the pigment ocher was used in caves 164,000 years ago. They have also unearthed deliberately pierced shells with marks suggesting they were strung like jewelry, as well as chunks of ocher, one engraved with a zigzag design—hinting that the capacity for art was present long before humans left Africa. Still, the evidence is frustratingly indirect. Perhaps the ocher wasn’t for painting but for mosquito repellent. And the engravings could have been one-offs, doodles with no symbolic meaning, says Wil Roebroeks, an expert in the archaeology of early humans, of Leiden University in the Netherlands. Other extinct hominin species have left similarly inconclusive artifacts.
By contrast, the gorgeous animal cave paintings in Europe represent a consistent tradition. The seeds of artistic creativity may have been sown earlier, but many scholars celebrate Europe as the place where it burst, full-fledged, into view. Before Chauvet and El Castillo, the famous art-filled cave in northern Spain, “we don’t have anything that smacks of figurative art,” says Roebroeks. “But from that point on,” he continues, “you have the full human package. Humans were more or less comparable to you and me.”
Yet the lack of older paintings may not reflect the true history of rock art so much as the fact that they can be very difficult to date. Radiocarbon dating, the kind used to determine the age of the charcoal paintings at Chauvet, is based on the decay of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 and works only on organic remains. It’s no good for studying inorganic pigments like ocher, a form of iron oxide used frequently in ancient cave paintings.
This is where Aubert comes in. Instead of analyzing pigment from the paintings directly, he wanted to date the rock they sat on, by measuring radioactive uranium, which is present in many rocks in trace amounts. Uranium decays into thorium at a known rate, so comparing the ratio of these two elements in a sample reveals its age; the greater the proportion of thorium, the older the sample. The technique, known as uranium series dating, was used to determine that zircon crystals from Western Australia were more than four billion years old, proving Earth’s minimum age. But it can also date newer limestone formations, including stalactites and stalagmites, known collectively as speleothems, which form in caves as water seeps or flows through soluble bedrock.
Aubert, who grew up in Lévis, Canada, and says he has been interested in archaeology and rock art since childhood, thought to date rock formations at a minute scale directly above and below ancient paintings, to work out their minimum and maximum age. To do this would require analyzing almost impossibly thin layers cut from a cave wall—less than a millimeter thick. Then a PhD student at the Australian National University in Canberra, Aubert had access to a state-of-the-art spectrometer, and he started to experiment with the machine, to see if he could accurately date such tiny samples.
Within a few years, Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at the University of Wollongong, where Aubert had received a postdoctoral fellowship—today they are both based at Griffith University—started digging in caves in Sulawesi. Brumm was working with the late Mike Morwood, co-discoverer of the diminutive hominin Homo floresiensis, which once lived on the nearby Indonesian island of Flores. The evolutionary origins of this so-called “hobbit” remain a mystery, but, to have reached Flores from mainland Southeast Asia, its ancestors must have passed through Sulawesi. Brumm hoped to find them.
As they worked, Brumm and his Indonesian colleagues were struck by the hand stencils and animal images that surrounded them. The standard view was that Neolithic farmers or other Stone Age people made the markings no more than 5,000 years ago—such markings on relatively exposed rock in a tropical environment, it was thought, couldn’t have lasted longer than that without eroding away. But the archaeological evidence showed that modern humans had arrived on Sulawesi at least 35,000 years ago. Could some of the paintings be older? “We were drinking palm wine in the evenings, talking about the rock art and how we might date it,” Brumm recalls. And it dawned on him: Aubert’s new method seemed perfect.
After that, Brumm looked for paintings partly obscured by speleothems every chance he got. “One day off, I visited Leang Jarie,” he says. Leang Jarie means “Cave of Fingers,” named for the dozens of stencils decorating its walls. Like Leang Timpuseng, it is covered by small growths of white minerals formed by the evaporation of seeping or dripping water, which are nicknamed “cave popcorn.” “I walked in and bang, I saw these things. The whole ceiling was covered with popcorn, and I could see bits of hand stencils in between,” recalls Brumm. As soon as he got home, he told Aubert to come to Sulawesi.
Aubert spent a week the next summer touring the region by motorbike. He took samples from five paintings partly covered by popcorn, each time using a diamond-tipped drill to cut a small square out of the rock, about 1.5 centimeters across and a few millimeters deep.
Back in Australia, he spent weeks painstakingly grinding the rock samples into thin layers before separating out the uranium and thorium in each one. “You collect the powder, then remove another layer, then collect the powder,” Aubert says. “You’re trying to get as close as possible to the paint layer.” Then he drove from Wollongong to Canberra to analyze his samples using the mass spectrometer, sleeping in his van outside the lab so he could work as many hours as possible, to minimize the number of days he needed on the expensive machine. Unable to get funding for the project, he had to pay for his flight to Sulawesi—and for the analysis—himself. “I was totally broke,“ he says.
The very first age Aubert calculated was for a hand stencil from the Cave of Fingers. “I thought, ‘Oh, shit,’” he says. “So I calculated it again.” Then he called Brumm.
“I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying,” Brumm recalls. “He blurted out, ‘35,000!’ I was stunned. I said, are you sure? I had the feeling immediately that this was going to be big.”
The caves we visit in Sulawesi are astonishing in their variety. They range from small rock shelters to huge caverns inhabited by venomous spiders and large bats. Everywhere there is evidence of how water has formed and changed these spaces. The rock is bubbling and dynamic, often glistening wet. It erupts into shapes resembling skulls, jellyfish, waterfalls and chandeliers. As well as familiar stalactites and stalagmites, there are columns, curtains, steps and terraces—and popcorn everywhere. It grows like barnacles on the ceilings and walls.
We’re joined by Muhammad Ramli, an archaeologist at the Center for the Preservation of Archaeological Heritage, in Makassar. Ramli knows the art in these caves intimately. The first one he visited, as a student in 1981, was a small site called Leang Kassi. He remembers it well, he says, not least because while staying overnight in the cave he was captured by local villagers who thought he was a headhunter. Ramli is now a portly but energetic 55-year-old with a wide-brimmed explorer’s hat and a collection of T-shirts with messages like “Save our heritage” and “Keep calm and visit museums.” He has cataloged more than 120 rock art sites in this region, and has established a system of gates and guards to protect the caves from damage and graffiti.
Almost all of the markings he shows me, in ocher and charcoal, appear in relatively exposed areas, lit by the sun. And they were apparently made by all members of the community. At one site, I climb a fig tree into a small, high chamber and am rewarded by the outline of a hand so small it could belong to my 2-year-old son. At another, hands are lined up in two horizontal tracks, all with fingers pointing to the left. Elsewhere there are hands with slender, pointed digits possibly created by overlapping one stencil with another; with painted palm lines; and with fingers that are bent or missing.
There’s still a tradition on Sulawesi of mixing rice powder with water to make a handprint on the central pillar of a new house, Ramli explains, to protect against evil spirits. “It’s a symbol of strength,” he says. “Maybe the prehistoric man thought like that too.” And on the nearby island of Papua, he says, some people express their grief when a loved one dies by cutting off a finger. Perhaps, he suggests, the stencils with missing fingers indicate that this practice too has ancient origins.
Paul Taçon, an expert in rock art at Griffith University, notes that the hand stencils are similar to designs created until recently in northern Australia. Aboriginal Australian elders he has interviewed explain that their stencils are intended to express connection to a particular place, to say: “I was here. This is my home.” The Sulawesi hand stencils “were probably made for similar reasons,” he says. Taçon believes that once the leap to rock art was made, a new cognitive path—the ability to retain complex information over time—had been set. “That was a major change,” he says.
There are two main phases of artwork in these caves. A series of black charcoal drawings—geometric shapes and stick figures including animals such as roosters and dogs, which were introduced to Sulawesi in the last few thousand years—haven’t been dated but presumably could not have been made before the arrival of these species.
Alongside these are red (and occasionally purplish-black) paintings that look very different: hand stencils and animals, including the babirusa in Leang Timpuseng, and other species endemic to this island, such as the warty pig. These are the paintings dated by Aubert and his colleagues, whose paper, published in Nature in October 2014, ultimately included more than 50 dates from 14 paintings. Most ancient of all was a hand stencil (right beside the record-breaking babirusa) with a minimum age of 39,900 years—making it the oldest-known stencil anywhere, and just 900 years shy of the world’s oldest-known cave painting of any kind, a simple red disk at El Castillo. The youngest stencil was dated to no more than 27,200 years ago, showing that this artistic tradition lasted largely unchanged on Sulawesi for at least 13 millennia.
The findings obliterated what we thought we knew about the birth of human creativity. At a minimum, they proved once and for all that art did not arise in Europe. By the time the shapes of hands and horses began to adorn the caves of France and Spain, people here were already decorating their own walls. But if Europeans didn’t invent these art forms, who did?
On that, experts are divided. Taçon doesn’t rule out the possibility that art might have arisen independently in different parts of the world after modern humans left Africa. He points out that although hand stencils are common in Europe, Asia and Australia, they are rarely seen in Africa at any time. “When you venture to new lands, there are all kinds of challenges relating to the new environment,” he says. You have to find your way around, and deal with strange plants, predators and prey. Perhaps people in Africa were already decorating their bodies, or making quick drawings in the ground. But with rock markings, the migrants could signpost unfamiliar landscapes and stamp their identity onto new territories.
Yet there are thought-provoking similarities between the earliest Sulawesian and European figurative art—the animal paintings are detailed and naturalistic, with skillfully drawn lines to give the impression of a babirusa’s fur or, in Europe, the mane of a bucking horse. Taçon believes that the technical parallels “suggest that painting naturalistic animals is part of a shared hunter-gatherer practice rather than a tradition of any particular culture.” In other words, there may be something about such a lifestyle that provoked a common practice, rather than its arising from a single group.
But Smith, of the University of Western Australia, argues that the similarities—ocher use, hand stenciling and lifelike animals—can’t be coincidental. He thinks these techniques must have arisen in Africa before the waves of migrations off the continent began. It’s a view in common with many experts. “My bet would be that this was in the rucksack of the first colonizers,” adds Wil Roebroeks, of Leiden University.
The eminent French prehistorian Jean Clottes believes that techniques such as stenciling may well have developed separately in different groups, including those who eventually settled on Sulawesi. One of the world’s most respected authorities on cave art, Clottes led research on Chauvet Cave that helped to fuel the idea of a European “human revolution.” “Why shouldn’t they make hand stencils if they wanted to?” he asks, when I reach him at his home in Foix, France. “People reinvent things all the time.” But although he is eager to see Aubert’s results replicated by other researchers, he feels that what many suspected from the pierced shells and carved ocher chunks found in Africa is now all but inescapable: Far from being a late development, the sparks of artistic creativity can be traced back to our earliest ancestors on that continent. Wherever you find modern humans, he believes, you’ll find art.
In a cavern known locally as Mountain-Tunnel Cave, buckets, a wheelbarrow and countless bags of clay surround a neatly dug trench, five meters long by three meters deep, where Adam Brumm is overseeing a dig that is revealing how the island’s early artists lived.
People arrived on Sulawesi as part of a wave of migration from east Africa that started around 60,000 years ago, likely traveling across the Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula to present-day India, Southeast Asia and Borneo, which at the time was part of the mainland. To reach Sulawesi, which has always been an island, they would have needed boats or rafts to cross a minimum of 60 miles of ocean. Although human remains from this period haven’t yet been found on Sulawesi, the island’s first inhabitants are thought to have been closely related to the first people to colonize Australia around 50,000 years ago. “They probably looked broadly similar to Aboriginal or Papuan people today,” says Brumm.
Brumm and his team have unearthed evidence of fire-building, hearths and precisely crafted stone tools, which may have been used to make weapons for hunting. Yet while the inhabitants of this cave sometimes hunted large animals such as wild boar, the archaeological remains show that they mostly ate freshwater shellfish and an animal known as the Sulawesi bear cuscus—a slow-moving tree-dwelling marsupial with a long, prehensile tail.
The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously argued in 1962 that primitive peoples chose to identify with and represent animals not because they were “good to eat” but because they were “good to think.” For ice age European cave painters, horses, rhinos, mammoths and lions were less important as dinner than as inspiration. Ancient Sulawesians, it seems, were likewise moved to depict larger, more daunting and impressive animals than the ones they frequently ate.
The hunt is now on for even older paintings that might take us ever closer to the moment of our species’ awakening. Aubert is collecting samples of limestone from painted caves elsewhere in Asia, including in Borneo, along the route that migrants would have taken to Sulawesi. And he and Smith are also independently working to develop new techniques to study other types of caves, including sandstone sites common in Australia and Africa. Sandstone doesn’t form cave popcorn, but the rock forms a “silica skin” that can be dated.
Smith, working with colleagues at several institutions, is just getting the first results from an analysis of paintings and engravings in the Kimberley, an area in northwestern Australia reached by modern humans at least 50,000 years ago. “The expectation is that we may see some very exciting early dates,” Smith says. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if pretty quickly we get a whole mass of dates that are earlier than in Europe.” And scholars now talk excitedly about the prospect of analyzing cave paintings in Africa. “99.9 percent of rock art is undated,” says Smith, citing, as an example, ocher representations of crocodiles and hippos found in the Sahara, often on sandstone and granite. “The conventional date on those would be 15,000 to 20,000 years old,” he says. “But there’s no reason they couldn’t be older.”
As the origins of art extend backward, we’ll have to revise our often localized ideas of what prompted such aesthetic expression in the first place. It has previously been suggested that Europe’s harsh northern climate necessitated strong social bonds, which in turn nudged the development of language and art. Or that competition with Neanderthals, present in Europe until around 25,000 years ago, pushed modern humans to express their identity by painting on cave walls—ancient hominin flag-planting. “Those arguments fall away,” says Smith, “because that wasn’t where it happened.”
Clottes has championed the theory that in Europe, where art was hidden deep inside dark chambers, the main function of cave paintings was to communicate with the spirit world. Smith is likewise convinced that in Africa, spiritual beliefs drove the very first art. He cites Rhino Cave in Botswana, where archaeologists have found that 65,000 to 70,000 years ago people sacrificed carefully made spearheads by burning or smashing them in front of a large rock panel carved with hundreds of circular holes. “We can be sure that in instances like that, they believed in some sort of spiritual force,” says Smith. “And they believed that art, and ritual in relation to art, could affect those spiritual forces for their own benefit. They’re not just doing it to create pretty pictures. They’re doing it because they’re communicating with the spirits of the land.”
In Mountain-Tunnel Cave, which has hand stencils and abundant traces of paint on the walls, Brumm is now also finding the early artists’ materials. In strata dated to around the same time as nearby stencils, he says, “there’s a major spike in ocher.” So far, his team has found stone tools with ocher smeared over the edges and golf ball-size ocher chunks with scrape marks. There are also scattered fragments, probably dropped and splashed when the artists ground up their ocher before mixing it with water—enough, in fact, that this entire slice of earth is stained cherry red.
Brumm says this layer of habitation stretches back at least 28,000 years, and he is in the process of analyzing older layers, using radiocarbon dating for the organic remains and uranium series dating of horizontal stalagmites that run through the sediment.
He calls this “a crucial opportunity.” For the first time in this part of the world, he says, “we’re linking the buried evidence with the rock art.” What that evidence shows is that on this island, at least, cave art wasn’t always an occasional activity carried out in remote, sacred spaces. If religious belief played a part, it was entwined with everyday life. In the middle of this cave floor, the first Sulawesians sat together around the fire to cook, eat, make tools—and to mix paint.
In a small hidden valley Aubert, Ramli and I walk across fields of rice in the early morning. Dragonflies glitter in the sun. At the far edge, we climb a set of steps high up a cliff to a breathtaking view and a cavernous entrance hall inhabited by swallows.
In a low chamber inside, pigs amble across the ceiling. Two appear to be mating—unique for cave art, Ramli points out. Another, with a swollen belly, might be pregnant. He speculates that this is a story of regeneration, the stuff of myth.
Past the pigs, a passageway leads to a deeper chamber where, at head height, there is a panel of well-preserved stencils including the forearms, which look as if they are reaching right out of the wall. Rock art is “one of the most intimate archives of the past,” Aubert once told me. “It instills a sense of wonder. We want to know: Who made it? Why?” The animal paintings are technically impressive, but for me the stencils inspire the strongest emotional connection. Forty thousand years later, standing here in the torchlight feels like witnessing a spark or a birth, a sign of something new in the universe. Outlined by splattered paint, fingers spread wide, the marks look insistent and alive.
Whatever was meant by these stencils, there can be no stronger message in viewing them: We are human. We are here. I raise my own hand to meet one, fingers hovering an inch above the ancient outline. It fits perfectly.