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Pigs, Popcorn and the Origins of Prehistoric Art

Undated painting of a wild pig from a cave in Maros.

This undated painting of a wild pig from a cave in Maros, probably tens of thousands of years old, is one of the few surviving examples of animal depictions from the region. Credit: Kizen Riza

By Adam Brumm & Maxime Aubert

The discovery of 40,000-year-old cave paintings in Indonesia has changed our understanding of the origins of art and modern culture worldwide.

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It is a strange thing to be able to hop off a motorbike, walk for a minute or two across a stubbly rice-field with the afternoon call to prayer booming from nearby village mosques, and stroll straight into a cave containing some of the oldest rock art in the world. It’s stranger still to think that only a short plane trip separates us from Australia to the south, and we are a world away from the so-called cradle of human creativity in Europe, where it has long been said that our species' ability to produce artworks of great skill and imagination first emerged about 40,000 years ago.

Not so long ago we had stood in this limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, staring up at a faded painting of a pig and a coloured outline of a human hand beside it, wondering if these were the oldest man-made images on the planet. Now, after a great deal of research in the field and lab we knew we were in the presence of something extraordinary: 40,000-year-old ice age art in the humid tropics of South-East Asia. This is the story of how we made this discovery.

Three years ago, one of us (Adam) travelled to the limestone hills of Maros, on the southern peninsula of Sulawesi, to carry out an archaeological dig in a cave. One Sunday, the team visited a nearby cave art site in Maros. The limestone cave is called Leang Jarie, which means Cave of Fingers, and it was not...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

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