Portable art from Pleistocene Sulawesi

Abstract

The ability to produce recognizable depictions of objects from the natural world—known as figurative art—is unique to Homo sapiens and may be one of the cognitive traits that separates our species from extinct hominin relatives. Surviving examples of Pleistocene figurative art are generally confined to rock art or portable three-dimensional works (such as figurines) and images engraved into the surfaces of small mobile objects. These portable communicative technologies first appear in Europe some 40 thousand years ago (ka) with the arrival of H. sapiens. Conversely, despite H. sapiens having moved into Southeast Asia–Australasia by at least 65 ka, very little evidence for Pleistocene-aged portable art has been identified, leading to uncertainties regarding the cultural behaviour of the earliest H. sapiens in this region. Here, we report the discovery of two small stone ‘plaquettes’ incised with figurative imagery dating to 26–14 ka from Leang Bulu Bettue, Sulawesi. These new findings, together with the recent discovery of rock art dating to at least 40 ka in this same region, overturns the long-held belief that the first H. sapiens of Southeast Asia–Australasia did not create sophisticated art and further cements the importance of this behaviour for our species’ ability to overcome environmental and social challenges.

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Fig. 1: Find context of the two engraved plaquettes.
Fig. 2: Stone plaquette featuring the engraved depiction of an endemic anoa (Bubalus sp.).
Fig. 3: Micro-CT imaging of the anoa plaquette.
Fig. 4: Anoa in Sulawesi Pleistocene art.
Fig. 5: Engraving of a rayed circular form.

Data availability

The artefacts reported here are currently curated at the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, Griffith University, Nathan, Australia. They will return to Indonesia at the conclusion of the project where they will be given accession numbers and be curated in Makassar by Balai Arkeologi Sulawesi Selatan.

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Acknowledgements

The 2017–2018 excavations at LBB were supported by an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship grant (no. FT160100119) awarded to A.B., along with generous funding from Griffith University. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. For authorizing the Indonesian field research, we thank Director of ARKENAS, I. Made Geria, Head of Balai Arkeologi Makassar, I. Mahmud and Head of Balai Pelestarian Cagar Budaya, L. Aksa, along with the State Ministry of Research and Technology, which issued the relevant research permits.

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A.B. directed the excavation of LBB with B.H., A.A.O., B.B., I.S., P.H.S. and R.L. acting as counterparts and collaborators on the investigation of the Sulawesi sites being explored. D.M. created the micro-CT images included in this manuscript. M.C.L. undertook the qualitative and quantitative analysis of the presented artefacts. M.C.L. and A.B. wrote the manuscript, with contributions from the other authors.

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Correspondence to Michelle C. Langley.

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Supplementary notes, data, references and Supplementary Figs. 1–20.

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Langley, M.C., Hakim, B., Agus Oktaviana, A. et al. Portable art from Pleistocene Sulawesi. Nat Hum Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0837-6

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