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Archaeology experts have presented their discovery of a life-size pig painted on the walls of a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The image depicts a wild warty pig, which is a species still native to the island. More importantly, however, the discovery presents the earliest evidence of human settlement in the region.
The cave painting measures about 53 by 21 inches (136 by 54cm) making it a true-to-life depiction of the animal.
Humans have hunted warty pigs across Sulawesi for tens of thousands of years, with the animal frequently featuring in prehistoric art.
According to Indonesian archaeologist and PhD student Basran Burhan, many such pigs feature in Ice Age-era art.
The image was painted onto the walls of Leang Tedongnge cave using red ochre pigment.
Two distinct handprints can be seen to the left of the animal and two other, partial-preserved paintings of pigs were found nearby.
Adam Brumm, study co-author and Professor from Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, said: “The Sulawesi warty pig painting we found in the limestone cave of Leang Tedongnge is now the earliest known representational work of art in the world, as far as we are aware.
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“The cave is in a valley that’s enclosed by steep limestone cliffs and is only accessible by a narrow cave passage in the dry season, as the valley floor is completely flooded in the wet.
“The isolated Bugis community living in this hidden valley claim it had never before been visited by Westerners.”
A second image of a warty pig was also uncovered and dated to about 32,000 years ago.
The island of Sulawesi has a rich history of humans presence, including stone artefacts and fossils possibly linked to relatives of the modern-day Homo sapiens.
The previously oldest-known cave painting in the region was found in Maros-Pangkep, South Sulawesi, and was dated to about 43,900 years ago.
However, Uranium-series dating has found the Leang Tedongnge cave painting is at least 1,600 years older if not more.
According to co-author Maxime Aubert of Griffith University, chances are the painting could be older as the dating method only tested the calcite on top of the image.
Professor Aubert said: “Rock art is very challenging to date. However, rock art produced in limestone caves can sometimes be dated using Uranium-series analysis of calcium carbonate deposits (‘cave popcorn’) that form naturally on the cave wall surface used as a ‘canvas’ for the art.
“At Leang Tedongnge, a small cave popcorn had formed on the rear foot of one of the pig figures after it had been painted, so when dated, it provided us with a minimum age for the painting.”
The archaeologists do, however, appear confident these are the earliest-known examples of human-made art in the world.
The researchers wrote in their study: “To our knowledge, the animal painting from Leang Tedongnge is the earliest known representational work of art in the world.
“There is no reason to suppose, however, that this early rock art is a unique example in Island Southeast Asia or the wider region.”
The islands of Indonesia form a biogeographical region known as Wallacea.
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There is evidence of humans crossing over from Wallacea and into Australia some 65,000 years ago.
Professor Aubert said: “Our species must have crossed through Wallacea by watercraft in order to reach Australia by at least 65,000 years ago. “However, the Wallacean islands are poorly explored and presently the earliest excavated archaeological evidence from this region is much younger in age.”
The latest finds are now the oldest evidence of humans in Wallacea.
The discovery was described in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.
Caves containing incredible prehistoric art have cropped up all across the globe, with some of the oldest known examples here in Europe.
The Maltravieso cave in Cáceres, Spain, is home to a 64,000-year-old red hand stencil.
The stencil was dated using the Uranium-Thorium method, but unlike the Indonesian paintings, has been attributed to Neanderthals and not Homo sapiens.
Before the Indonesian discoveries, the oldest-known cave painting was a 40,000-year-old image of a bull found in Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave, Borneo.
The oldest-known European cave paintings can be found in the world-famous Chauvet Cave in France.
The paintings have been dated to the Upper Paleolithic about 30,000 years ago.
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