Explorers Redefining World History

Indonesia has some of the oldest cave art in the world—dating back thousands of years. A recent discovery turns back the clock even further.

Archaeologists from Griffith University recently discovered two cave paintings of warthogs in the same region of Sulawesi. The oldest of the two graphics is at least 45,000 years old. The picture was found in the Leang Tedongnge cave in a remote valley. It provides the earliest evidence of human settlement of the region. It is now the earliest known graphic art in the world depicting an animal. The archaeologists discovered the second image in an area known as Leang Balangajia. It dates back at least 32,000 years.

A dating specialist tested a calcite deposit that formed over the painting. He used Uranium-series isotope dating to determine that the deposit over the painting was 45,500 years old. Therefore, the artwork is at least that old.

“The people who made it were fully modern, they were like us—they had all of the capacity and the tools to do paintings,” said Maxime Aubert, co-author of the report published in Science Advances journal.

The report says that the painting, which measures 136 cm by 54 cm, depicts a pig with horn-like facial warts. There are two handprints above the back of the pig, which also appears to be facing two other pigs that are partially preserved. The artists used dark red ochre pigment.

“The pig appears to be observing a fight or social interaction between two other warty pigs,” said co-author Adam Brumm.

To make the handprints, the artists had to place their hands on a surface before spitting pigment over it, the researchers said. The team hopes to be able to extract DNA samples from the residual saliva as well. The painting may be the world’s oldest art depicting a figure, but it is not the oldest human-produced art.

Sulawesi borders the Wallace Line—a dividing line of biodiversity like nowhere on earth. On the western side of the invisible line, large mammal species are indigenous to some of the islands, including elephants, rhinos, tigers, and orangutans. On the eastern side of the line, none of those large mammals are present and the plant species also are different. The islands were stepping-stones for humans that migrated from Asia to Australia about 65,000 years ago, so history suggests that there is even older cave art across the Indonesian archipelago. The limestone hills are near Makassar. They have many hidden caves, just like the one at Leang Tedongnge.

Sulawesi has a long history of human occupation.

The earliest archaeological evidence is from Talepu, a Middle Pleistocene site in the south of the island. The Talepu findings comprise in situ stone artifacts associated with fossils of extinct land mammals. The artifacts are likely between 118,000 and 194,000 years old, though some may be even older. The keen-edged flakes of stone were excavated from an ancient river floodplain in southwest Sulawesi, near the present-day village of Talepu. The find further indicates that some earlier form of human was more successful at traversing the south Pacific’s island networks than previously believed. It’s possible that the toolmakers are yet-undiscovered relatives of Homo floresiensis, a so-called hobbit hominin (human) that inhabited the island of Flores between 18,000 and 95,000 years ago.

In some models of early human settlement in Sahul, the large Sulawesi landmass would have been the first stop on a series of ocean crossings through northern Wallacea to the western tip of New Guinea. If the oldest published dates for Madjedbebe are acceptable, then Homo sapiens may have reached Sulawesi up to 6,900 years ago.

The caves feature hand stencils and animal figurines. The newest discoveries are at several sites, including:

  • Leang Tedongnge;
  • Leang Timpuseng;
  • Leang Barugayya;
  • Leang Bulu’ Sipong;
  • Gua Uhallie;
  • Leang Balangajia;
  • Leang Bulu Bettue; and
  • Leang Burung.

Rock art on Sulawesi was first identified 70 years ago in Maros-Pangkep. Some 300 caves and shelters with graphics have been discovered in this area. At least two chronologically distinct styles of rock art are evident.

The earliest dated images occur on the same rock art panel at the limestone cave of Leang Bulu’ Sipong. The 4.5-m-wide panel at this site consists of a scene portraying several human-like figures apparently hunting Sulawesi warty pigs and anoas. The human-like figures have animal features such as tails and snouts. In one section, an anoa is flanked by several figures holding spears.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Mr Brumm. “I mean, we’ve seen hundreds of rock art sites in this region – but we’ve never seen anything like a hunting scene.”

The image from Leang Tedongnge, with a firmly established minimum age of 45.5 ka, would now appear to be the earliest known dated artwork in Sulawesi. It also represents the oldest reported indication for the presence of AMH on the island and perhaps in the wider Wallacean region. In fact, the painting of a Sulawesi warty pig at Leang Tedongnge appears to be the world’s oldest surviving representational image of an animal. These findings imply early colonization of the island by an archaic and now-extinct humanoid other than Homo sapiens.

Sulawesi’s archaeological history also includes hundreds of megaliths that date back to at least the 14th century. Many are located in the Bada Valley, in the Lore Lindu National Park in Central Sulawesi. Of course, Indonesia’s archaeology is world-famous already.

Hobbit Man: Archaeologists made another significant discovery in Indonesia in 2003, when the remains of hobbit-sized humans were found on the remote island of Flores. This human relative, dubbed Flores Man, dates back about 18,000 years, which makes it a more modern skeleton than Java Man or Solo Man. It’s called hobbit because the stature of the newly discovered species is about three feet tall.

Java Man: Java man is the name given to fossils discovered in 1891 at Trinil on the banks of the Bengawan Solo River in East Java, one of the first known specimens of Homo erectus (Pithecanthropus erectus).

Borobudur: When scholars and historians speak of the world’s great Buddhist temples, most conversations include Borobudur—the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Borobudur means “monastery on the hill” and it is most famous for its many stone-carved panels depicting the life and teachings of Buddha. It features more than 1,000 narratives in all on walls that form the temple itself. The massive structure includes at least two million stone blocks. This monumental structure was constructed in the 9th century and it dominates an entire hill near Yogyakarta.

Prambanan: Prambanan is the largest Hindu monument in Indonesia. It was built around 850-900 A.D. The temple has been damaged by centuries of earthquakes, vandals, and other forces. Not long after its construction, the complex of temples was abandoned and allowed to deteriorate.

Gunung Padang: This massive site is located on a hilltop in the West Java.  It’s been described as the largest megalithic site in all of Southeastern Asia and possibly the largest pyramid structure in the world. If his findings are correct, Gunung Padang is evidence of a shockingly advanced ancient civilization, a kind of forgotten Atlantis — and it changes everything archaeologists thought they knew about the history of human civilization. Nearby, the Garut pyramid (below) begs to be uncovered.

Garut Pyramid Java Indonesia

Indonesia may be home to the earliest advanced civilization the world has ever uncovered. The find is a source of enormous pride to the Indonesian people and especially the government, which has spared no expense on the excavation.

Indonesia is the fourth-largest nation in the world with more than 267 million people. The country is comprised of more than 17,500 islands, including Bali, Borneo, Java, Lombok, Sumatra and Sulawesi. Learn more about Indonesia.

Language and Travel Guide to Indonesia

Learn about where to go, what do and what to say. Experience more of Indonesia than the average traveler by speaking Indonesian. Simple courtesies and greetings will make your trip more productive and rewarding. Our phonetic style makes it impossible to mispronounce important words. Order your hard copyIndonesians will sparkle with delight when you speak just a few words in bahasa Indonesia. Watch our Indonesian tutorial.