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Hunting picture in Indonesian cave dated as world’s oldest known story art

Rock art pig with researcher Oktaviana_credit AA Oktaviana

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Published
4 July 2024

Southern Cross University’s laser precision has dated the oldest known evidence of storytelling in art, found in a cave in Indonesia, at 51,200 years.

The painting of a hunting scene, located in the limestone cave of Leang Karampuang in the Maros-Pangkep region of South Sulawesi, portrays three human-like figures interacting with a wild pig.

None of the famous European Ice Age art is anywhere near as old as 51,200 years, with the exception of some controversial finds in Spain. This is the first-time rock art dates have ever been pushed beyond the 50,000-year mark.

Professor Renaud Joannes-Boyau, an expert in archaeogeochemistry in the Geoarchaeology and Archaeometry Research Group (GARG) at Southern Cross University, is a co-first author of the findings published in the journal Nature.

Hidden in the forest of Indonesia on the island of Sulawesi are buried secrets from the first humans thousands of years ago. High in the mountain in a remote cave system lies humanity's oldest storytelling. The reddish cave art depict human figures interacting with wiled beast, such as this pig hunting scene. An international team of researchers have developed a new dating method to reveal the surprising age of this prehistoric masterpiece. Using high precision laser beam four times smaller than the size of a human hair, they were able to create geochemical maps of the tiny samples. The team obtained ages of carbonate layers directly in contact with the prehistoric art revealing an incredible age of 51,000 years old making this rock out the oldest example of storytelling by our ancestors and attesting to the complex spiritual world of early humans.

To determine its age, Professor Joannes-Boyau developed a novel method of laser ablation U-series (LA-U-series) analysis, to date tiny layers of calcium carbonate that had formed on top of the art. Learn more about laser ablation equipment later in this article.

The results revealed the underlying artwork was painted at least 51,200 years ago, making it the oldest known reliably dated cave art image in the world, and the earliest narrative art found anywhere.

"The innovative technique we've pioneered enables us to create detailed 'maps' of calcium carbonate layers," explained Professor Joannes-Boyau.

“This capability empowers us to pinpoint and steer clear of regions affected by natural diagenesis processes, which stem from intricate growth histories. Consequently, our age determinations for rock art become more robust and dependable.”

“The innovative technique we've pioneered enables us to create detailed 'maps' of calcium carbonate layers ... consequently, our age determinations for rock art become more robust and dependable.”

Renaud Joannes-Boyau in Biomics Facility

Southern Cross University collaborated with Griffith University and the Indonesian National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) the paper’s findings.

Professor Joannes-Boyau co-developed the new LA-U-series dating method with Professor Maxime Aubert, a specialist in archaeological science at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research (GCSCR).

The cave discovery was made a decade ago by a team led by Adhi Agus Oktaviana, an Indonesian rock art specialist from the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN).

Renaud Joannes-Boyau and Maxime Aubert rock art dating in GARG facilityt dating in GARG facility
Dating the rock art: Professor Renaud Joannes-Boyau (left) with Griffith University's Professor Maxime Aubert in Southern Cross University's GARG facility. The laser ablation U-series (LA-U-series) analysis method was applied to date tiny layers of calcium carbonate on the art.

Adhi Agus Oktaviana explained that narrative storytelling was a crucial part of early human artistic culture in Indonesia from a very early point in time.

“Humans have probably been telling stories for much longer than 51,200 years, but as words do not fossilise we can only go by indirect proxies like depictions of scenes in art – and the Sulawesi art is now the oldest such evidence by far that is known to archaeology,” Oktaviana said.

Learn more: Found in a cave in Indonesia, we can now show the world’s oldest figurative art is 51,200 years old published in The Conversation.

 

Study details

‘Narrative cave art in Indonesia by 51,200 years ago’ by Oktaviana, AA, Joannes-Boyau, R, et al

Published in Nature

DOI: doi.org/10.1038/s41586-024-07541-7

Aerial Photo Karampuang Hill. Credit_ Google Arts & Culture
Leang Karampuang, a dramatic karst hill in Sulawesi, Indonesia, riddled with caves that host the world’s oldest rock art (credit: Google Arts & Culture)

Laser precision drives archaeological breakthroughs

Located at the University’s Northern Rivers campus and worth a cool $1.5M, the high-resolution Laser Ablation-Multi Collector-Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometer - or LA-MC-ICP-MS for short - is one of the most cutting-edge and successful analytical techniques used in archaeological sciences worldwide today. Its ablation lines create high-resolution geochemical maps of radioisotopes, thus increasing precision and accuracy.

Southern Cross University is the proud owner of the only MC Neptune XT unit in Australia.

The specialist equipment enables Dr Joannes-Boyau to vaporise microscopic portions of the surface of any sample, which is then transported by a gas mixture to the ICPMS for analysis and age determination.

Renaud Joannes-Boyau in Biomics Facility
One of a kind: Southern Cross University is the proud owner of Australia's only MC Neptune XT unit located at the Northern Rivers campus.

Media contact

Sharlene King, Media Office at Southern Cross University +61 429 661 349 or [email protected]