Archaeologists have long been puzzled by the appearance in Europe ∼40–35 thousand years (kyr) ago of a rich corpus of sophisticated artworks, including parietal art (that is, paintings, drawings and engravings on immobile rock surfaces)1,2 and portable art (for example, carved figurines)3,4, and the absence or scarcity of equivalent, well-dated evidence elsewhere, especially along early human migration routes in South Asia and the Far East, including Wallacea and Australia5,6,7,8, where modern humans (Homo sapiens) were established by 50 kyr ago9,10. Here, using uranium-series dating of coralloid speleothems directly associated with 12 human hand stencils and two figurative animal depictions from seven cave sites in the Maros karsts of Sulawesi, we show that rock art traditions on this Indonesian island are at least compatible in age with the oldest European art11. The earliest dated image from Maros, with a minimum age of 39.9 kyr, is now the oldest known hand stencil in the world. In addition, a painting of a babirusa (‘pig-deer’) made at least 35.4 kyr ago is among the earliest dated figurative depictions worldwide, if not the earliest one. Among the implications, it can now be demonstrated that humans were producing rock art by ∼40 kyr ago at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world.
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The fieldwork was authorized by the director of the Makassar Heritage Department (BPPP), M. Said, and the director of the National Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta (ARKENAS), B. Sulistyanto. We further acknowledge Balai Arkeologi Makassar, the Indonesian State Ministry of Research and Technology, and the Geological Survey Institute in Bandung, for facilitating the research. We thank the University of Wollongong’s Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), J. Raper, for additional project support. Field assistants included M. Andi Pampang and A. A. Oktaviana. Technical laboratory assistance involved G. Mortimer, H. Price, L. Sweetman and L. Yu., and C. Owers provided map data. We thank P. Taçon and M. W. Moore for critical feedback on the manuscript. This research was supported by grants from the Australian Research Council to M.A. (DP110102898/DE140100254) and A.B. (DP0879624/DE130101560) and the Centre for Archaeological Science (CAS), University of Wollongong.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Extended data figures and tables
a, Black drawings of early Austronesian style were made on a relatively freshly exposed limestone surface and are superimposed over remnant patches of a much older surface, now extremely heavily weathered and almost completely exfoliated, containing faded hand stencils (shown more clearly and highlighted by arrows in b). The same rock art panel was documented and illustrated in a publication by a team of French cavers in 1986, but the hand stencils were not identified35.
a, Locations of the sampled coralloid speleothems and associated hand stencils. b, Profile of the coralloid speleothem showing the microexcavated subsamples bracketing the age of the paintings. The Leang Jarie 2 (2012) sample is from above the pigment layer and so only provides a minimum age for the underlying hand stencils.
a, Photograph showing the locations of the sampled coralloid speleothems and associated hand stencil. b, c, Tracings showing the locations of the sampled coralloid speleothems and associated hand stencil. Although heavily obscured by coralloid speleothems, we interpret this image as a ‘mutilated hand’ stencil, which shows in outline a human hand with two amputated digits or with the third and fourth fingers folded into the palm. The hand stencil is located on the ceiling of a narrow, dimly lit passage leading off from the main entrance to the cave. Samples Leang Lompoa 1 (2012) and Leang Lompoa 1 (2013) are part of the same cluster of coralloid speleothems that formed over the hand stencil. d, e, Profiles of the coralloid speleothems showing the microexcavated subsamples bracketing the age of the motif. Note that sample LL1.2 (2012) does not represent the age of the hand stencil. The resultant age reflects a mixture of calcium carbonate from below and above the pigment layer. Tracing credit: Leslie Refine ‘Graph & Co’ (France).
a, Locations of the sampled coralloid speleothems and associated hand stencils. The hand stencils occur on a 2.5-m-high ceiling in a small, dimly lit side chamber leading off from the cave mouth. The stencil at the left (Leang Lompoa 3) is stylistically distinct from the adjacent stencil (Leang Lompoa 2), with the fingers modified by brushwork subsequent to stencilling to produce slender and pointy forms. b, c, Profiles of the coralloid speleothems showing the microexcavated subsamples bracketing the age of the hand stencils.
a, Locations of the sampled coralloid speleothems and associated cluster of hand stencils. The hand stencils are situated on a small rock art panel near the ceiling and close to the cave entrance. Samples LB1 and LB2 come from two distinct hand stencils that are dark mulberry (almost black) in colour. Sample LB3 is from over an adjacent red hand stencil. b–d, Profiles of the coralloid speleothems showing the microexcavated subsamples bracketing the age of the hand stencils.
a, b, Composite of photographs showing the locations of the sampled coralloid speleothems and associated large infilled red painting of an animal. Field photographs were altered in the software program DStretch to enhance the image (b). The animal species depicted is unidentified as a result of the extent of weathering and deterioration of the painting and the thick accumulation of coralloids over the art; however, the painting seems to show in profile a large land mammal, probably a pig (a babirusa or Sus celebensis), with the head facing right and the hindquarters at the left. c, d, Profile of the coralloid speleothems showing the microexcavated subsamples bracketing the age of the painting. Images a and b courtesy of A. A. Oktaviana.
a, Location of the sampled coralloid speleothem and associated hand stencil. The hand stencil is located on a stalactite curtain 15 m from the cave entrance and 2 m above the current cave floor. The cave itself comprises a dark, winding phreatic tube containing an extensive gallery of hand stencils and figurative animal motifs. b, Profile of the coralloid speleothem showing the microexcavated subsamples bracketing the age of the hand stencil.
a, Location of the sampled coralloid speleothem and associated hand stencil. b, Profile of the coralloid speleothem showing the microexcavated subsamples bracketing the age of the hand stencil.
a, Locations of the sampled coralloid speleothems and associated hand stencil. Leang Sampeang is a 20-m-deep, narrow chamber with paintings located on the ceiling at the back of the cave in complete darkness. In this area the cave is only 2.5 m wide and requires crawling to reach. Samples Leang Sampeang 1 and Leang Sampeang 2 came from the same red hand stencil located 17 m from the cave entrance and 18 cm above the current cave floor. b, c, Profiles of the coralloid speleothems showing the microexcavated subsamples bracketing the age of the hand stencil.
This table contains the results of uranium-series disequilibrium dating of rock art motifs. All isotopic ratios are activity ratios; errors are at 2s. (XLSX 24 kb)
This table contains analyses of ANU powdered carbonate standards AC-1 (Porites coral) and HU-1 (Harwell Uraninite at secular equilibrium). All isotopic ratios are activity ratios; errors are at 2s. (XLSX 11 kb)
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Aubert, M., Brumm, A., Ramli, M. et al. Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature 514, 223–227 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13422
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