“The piece of ochre in my hands in this picture was once held by some of the earliest artists in human history. Before I found it, this ancient specimen had lain buried in a cave in southwest Sulawesi, Indonesia, for around 30,000 years. After I cleaned the dirt from its surface, I could see scratch marks where the artists had scraped off powder to create their cave wall art.

The karst limestone mountains of Sulawesi’s Maros–Pangkep region contain hundreds of prehistoric caves, many of which contain rock art. In 2019, I was part of a team that dated a hunting scene at one of these caves to at least 43,900 years ago — making it the earliest piece of figurative artwork yet discovered.

I was working as an independent researcher at the time, but the focus of my current research — a PhD project supervised by archaeologist Adam Brumm at Griffith University, Australia — is an archaeological dig into the floor of a different cave, known as Leang Bulu Bettue, in the same region. We have dug down to a sediment layer that’s the same age as the hunting scene, to find out more about the people who created it. As well as ochre, we have found animal bones, stone tools and carved stone jewellery depicting buffalo and the Sun. We’ve also found a small piece of human skull.

We know from digs at other sites on Sulawesi that, before the arrival of Homo sapiens around 50,000 years ago, an earlier group of archaic hominins lived here. I would like to find out whether there was any overlap or exchange between the two cultures before the hominins vanished. During our next field trip to Leang Bulu Bettue, scheduled for mid-2024, we will dig into older and older sediments until we reach the bedrock of the cave.

Next year, I expect to finish my PhD, but I hope to continue my research here. I have fallen in love with this area, and there are still so many questions to answer.”