Letter | Published:

Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia

Nature volume 514, pages 223227 (09 October 2014) | Download Citation



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.

Author information

Author notes

    • M. Aubert
    •  & A. Brumm

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

    • A. Brumm

    Present address: Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University, Brisbane, Queensland 4111, Australia.

    • M. J. Morwood



  1. Centre for Archaeological Science, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales 2522, Australia

    • M. Aubert
    • , A. Brumm
    • , T. Sutikna
    •  & G. D. van den Bergh
  2. Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit (PERAHU), Griffith University, Gold Coast, Queensland 4222, Australia

    • M. Aubert
  3. Balai Pelestarian Peninggalan Purbakala, Makassar 90111, Indonesia

    • M. Ramli
  4. National Centre for Archaeology (ARKENAS), Jakarta 12001, Indonesia

    • T. Sutikna
    •  & E. W. Saptomo
  5. Balai Arkeologi Makassar, Makassar 90242, Indonesia

    • B. Hakim
  6. Research School of Earth Sciences, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200, Australia

    • L. Kinsley
  7. Wollongong Isotope Geochronology Laboratory, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales 2522, Australia

    • A. Dosseto
  8. GeoQuEST Research Centre, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales 2522, Australia

    • A. Dosseto


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A.B. and T.S. conceived the study with M.A., as part of a wider project led by M.R., E.W.S. and B.H., in collaboration with A.B., M.J.M. and G.v.d.B. M.A. and A.B. identified the samples. M.A. collected the samples and conducted the uranium-series dating with A.D. M.A. and A.B. wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. Aubert.

Extended data

Supplementary information

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Table 1

    This table contains the results of uranium-series disequilibrium dating of rock art motifs. All isotopic ratios are activity ratios; errors are at 2s.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Table 2

    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.

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