SOME 45,500 YEARS ago, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, ancient humans ventured into a cave and sketched out the rotund form of a native pig, complete with a bristly back and face warts. Archaeologists now believe this portly swine marks the oldest drawing of a creature yet discovered anywhere in the world.
In a study published this week in Science Advances, an image of the drawing shows the animal apparently looking at two other pigs mid-squabble. The outlines of two human hands are positioned near the rump of the pig, and a bristly patch in the center of the mix might hint at a fourth creature.
The painting, made with strokes of red ocher on the interior cave walls, was discovered in December 2017 by local archaeologist Basran Burhan, currently a Ph.D. student at Australia’s Griffith University. He led a small team to search caves in South Sulawesi for traces of ancient human activity when he discovered the newfound pig art at a site known as Leang Tedongnge.
“They’re very, very, small little pigs, but these ancient artists portrayed them with such resplendent fatness, which I imagine was something to do with their interest in killing the largest and fattest pigs they could find, which yielded the largest amount of meat and protein,” he says.
While the newfound painting is the world’s oldest art depicting a figure, it’s not necessarily the oldest art. “It depends on what definition of ‘art’ you use,” says study co-author Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University. Some strikingly ancient glimmers of creativity have been recently identified, including a 73,000-year-old hashtag-like doodle from South Africa that some believe to be the oldest known drawing.
But the newfound paintings do add to an increasingly rich tradition of cave art discovered throughout Indonesia. In Sulawesi alone, scientists have identified imagery in some 300 caves over the last 70 years. This includes the next-oldest figurative cave paintings—a vignette at least 44,000 years old that portrays the thrill of an ancient hunt as two- to four-inch-tall humanoids chase down pigs and diminutive relatives of water buffalo.