Earliest Figurative Art Tells Story of a Hunt in Indonesia 44,000 Years Ago

The part-human, part-animal hunters targeting pigs and bison look a lot like prehistoric European depictions of therianthropes, which some think attest to early shamanism

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The 44,000-year-old panel of drawings is not easy to spot.
Hunting scene panorama Credit: Adam Brumm / Ratno Sardi
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A panel of paintings 4.5 meters (nearly 15 feet) wide on the rear wall of a cave in Indonesia has been dated to almost 44,000 years ago, making it the earliest-known figurative art in the world.

Multiple small therianthropes facing an anoaCredit: Ratno Sardi

The images are of strange hybrid human-animals (known as therianthropes) apparently aiming spears or ropes at pigs and bison, report Maxime Aubert and an international team of colleagues in Nature on Wednesday. This is a hunting scene, they suggest, which would make the panel the earliest known narrative art in the world, the researchers say.

Abstract art is much older. If one agrees that a zigzag painstakingly engraved on a clamshell is art, then abstract art by Homo erectus began in Java half a million years ago, predating Homo sapiens itself. But figurative art showing a complex scene and telling a tale is a whole other kettle of clamshells.

Until recently, Western Europe was thought to be home to the earliest figurative art going back about 35,000 years. Then last year, drawings of wild cattle were discovered in Borneo dated roughly to 40,000 years ago (though it could be as old as 52,000 years). And now we have the hunting scene in Leang Bulu Sipong Cave, Sulawesi, from 43,900 years ago — further indicating that narrative art in Asia predated European attempts by millennia.

“We don’t know if art began in Asia, but we know that our species arrived in Southeast Asia long before it reached Europe,” Aubert tells Haaretz. “To me, the most fascinating aspect of our research is that humanity’s oldest cave art is at least 44,000 years old, and it already has all the key components relating to modern cognition (hand stencils, figurative art, storytelling, therianthropes). So it must have a much older origin, possibly in Africa or soon after we left Africa.”

A key aspect to interpreting the Indonesian panel is the therianthropic form of the hunters — part-human, part-animal. Despite the potential canvas of human creativity being practically infinite, artisans were making therianthropic figurines and pictures at the opposite ends of Eurasia in (very roughly) the same time frame, tens of thousands of years ago.

Therianthrope: Human figure with bird-like headCredit: Ratno Sardi
Hunting scene panorama Credit: Adam Brumm / Ratno Sardi

What on earth could that mean? Why did people at the opposite ends of the prehistoric world draw, or carve, therianthropes?

Perhaps prehistoric humans camouflaged themselves as animals by wearing their skulls and pelts or feathers, thinking it would fool their prey — and so that’s what they drew (or sculpted); more plausibly perhaps, they felt it made them one with the animals they were mimicking. What it might mean is anybody’s guess, but for some the appearance of the therianthropes — especially in such far-flung areas — evokes a whiff of prehistoric religiosity.

Then there were two lion-people

The previous titleholder of earliest therianthrope was the Lion-Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel, a figurine with the head of a cat on the body of a human, exquisitely carved from mammoth tusk. It is 31 centimeters long, and there is an unresolved argument over whether the statuette is male or female. Whatever sex the muse was, and whatever that triangular protuberance between its legs was supposed to be, the statuette definitely has the head of a lion. Or a lioness. It is 35,000 to 40,000 years old.

Not far away, and also in Germany, a smaller lion-headed humanoid figurine was found in another cave, Vogelherd, some years later.

So now there were two, from different places. The Lion-Man/Woman was not made by one caveman with a cat trauma, and there are numerous other examples of therianthropic imagery. Archaeologist Nicholas J. Conard seems confident that the Lion-Thing of Hohle Fels is female, and has evinced support for the theory that the development of figurative art (such as the lion-ladies) may attest that the makers practiced shamanism.

The Lion-Man of Hohle Fels seems to be female, BTWCredit: Thilo Parg / Wikimedia Commons /
The environment of the Leang Bulu'Sipong caveCredit: Ratno Sard

Tens of thousands of years after the event, we cannot say what the ancient artists were thinking when they drew or carved therianthropes. But it certainly is a repeating motif in the prehistoric world.

In any case, the archaeologists argue that the flaking, time-worn wall pictures in Sulawesi are linked to a human propensity for drama. “Prehistoric cave art provides the most direct insight that we have into the earliest story-telling, in the form of narrative compositions or scenes,” they write. The proximity of characters — bison and strangely-drawn human — suggest interaction between them, not necessarily of a kind the animals would appreciate.

The same spirit, or spirituality, probably applies to the almost 350 caves with prehistoric wall art discovered in France and Spain. Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in Ardèche, southern France, is just one of the breathtaking examples of early art. Generally, the dating there is around 32,000 years ago to the tail end of the Stone Age, but some may be older.

Prof. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University has argued in different contexts entirely that early humans had a spiritual aspect to their culture, and has suggested in separate research that certain archaeological evidence supports the theory that early humans had a special relationship with nature and even their prey. For instance, when they hunted an animal such as an elephant, early humans utilized all of it, including by making apparently non-utilitarian tools from bones, which demonstrates that respect, he suggests.

Regarding cave art, Barkai has suggested that aspects of the drawings, such as the superposition of multiple animals such as grouped horses that are seemingly identical yet, when seen closely, each has individual features, may attest to the humans' keen appreciation of nature – a respect that modern man has sadly lost.

The 44,000-year-old panel of drawings is not easy to spotCredit: Kim Newman
The archaeologists see a therianthropic human with a tail, say the researchersCredit: Ratno Sardi

A ‘cheep’ shot

The Sulawesi panel described by Aubert, Adam Brumm and colleagues was discovered in 2017 and is monochromatic, drawn in dark red pigment.

The panel contains what is interpreted as eight stylized humanoid stick-figures hunting two porcines — presumably the local species called babirousa — and four dwarf buffaloes, aka anoas.

The therianthropes and animals seem to have been painted at the same time because they evince similar states of weathering, the researchers explain. “The anthropomorphic figures are simplified and highly stylized forms with, in some instances, elongated lower faces resembling muzzles or snouts, along with other animal-like characteristics,” the authors write. (One of the figures seems to have a tail.)

Because of this, the archaeologists don’t think the artist was engaging in the earliest portraiture. Although the ancients of Sulawesi may have dressed to look like animals, one of the therianthropes seems to have a beak. This would improbably imply that the hunters were disguising themselves as small animals such as birds, they say.

Disguising themselves as terrifying animals such as giant bears wouldn’t have achieved the effect camouflage was designed to achieve: One wants to fool the prey into thinking one is harmless, not give it palpitations. But we may agree that ancient hunters wouldn’t have likely disguised themselves as sparrows.

Ergo, these therianthropes may show a flight of the artist’s imagination, not real prehistoric hunters in the act, and therefore that argues in favor of showing thought in these early modern humans about the human-animal connection. Alternatively, the image might just show a communal hunt or game drive, with a realistic description of strategy.

Barkai has pointed out in conversation with Haaretz that indigenous peoples everywhere and at all times had unique cosmological relationships with the world around them, and particularly with animals. Animals were conceived as other-than-human-persons and had to be treated with respect in order to make themselves willingly available for humans, as human existence was dependent on calories extracted from these animals.

Maxime Aubert, left, with Adam BrummCredit: Kinez Riza

Thus, these cave drawings, in Barkai's opinion, bear testimony to a universal primordial relationship between humans and animals, as caves acted as a liminal space for connecting with the underworld, the world of the animals. Thus, in his view, what we see in the cave is a universal phenomenon that involves humans "becoming" animals; being one with their prey; and making an effort to maintain and keep good repations with the world in order to ensure their well-being.

That in and of itself argues that spirituality and a healthy relationship with nature go back to the earliest modern humans.

On a final note, sometimes we find what we want or expect to find. The interpretation of therianthropic images from 44,000 years ago as indicative of shamanism would be easier for some to swallow than others

Shamanic beliefs are widely believed to have taken root during the late Stone Age. One particularly ornate grave site in Israel, dating to 12,000 years ago, has been interpreted as indicating shamanism: An old disabled woman was buried with — count ’em — 50 tortoise shells, body parts of a wild boar, an eagle, a cow, a leopard, two whole martens, and a human foot. She died at a time when the people of the region were slowly, stutteringly transiting from hunting and gathering to farming. Many think that this period of time — when we needed to protect crops and harvests from the vagaries of Nature — is when we developed a mania for pacifying the gods.

But if the interpretation of the hybrid human-animal pictures in caves going back 44,000 years or more is correct in identifying a spiritual side to early humankind, then our obsession with the supernatural began a lot earlier than our agricultural prowess.