Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Portable art from Pleistocene Sulawesi


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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. 1.

    McBrearty, S. & Brooks, A. S. The revolution that wasn’t: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior. J. Hum. Evol. 39, 453–563 (2000).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Shea, J. J. Homo sapiens is as Homo sapiens was. Curr. Anthropol. 52, 1–35 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Colagè, I. & d’Errico, F. Culture: the driving force of human cognition. Top. Cogn. Sci. 11, 1–19 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    d’Errico, F. et al. Archaeological evidence for the emergence of language, symbolism, and music—an alternative multidisciplinary perspective. J. World Prehist. 17, 1–70 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Kuhn, S. L. & Stiner, M. C. in Rethinking the Human Revolution: New Behavioural and Biological Perspectives on the Origin and Dispersal of Modern Humans (eds. Mellars, P., Boyle, K., Bar-Yosef, O. & Stringer, C.) Chapter 4 (MacDonald Institute of Archaeology, 2007).

  6. 6.

    Mellet, E. et al. Neuroimaging supports the representational nature of the earliest human engravings. R. Soc. Open Sci. 6, 190086 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Clarkson, C. et al. Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago. Nature 547, 306–310 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Westaway, K. et al. An early modern human presence in Sumatra 73,000–63,000 years ago. Nature 548, 322–325 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Brumm, A. & Moore, M. W. Symbolic revolutions and the Australian archaeological record. Camb. Archaeol. J. 15, 157–175 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Dennell, R. & Porr, M. Southern Asia, Australia and the Search for Human Origins (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  11. 11.

    Langley, M. C., Clarkson, C. & Ulm, S. From small holes to grand narratives: the impact of taphonomy and sample size on the modernity debate in Australia and New Guinea. J. Hum. Evol. 61, 197–208 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Wright, D., Langley, M. C., Litster, M., & May, S. K. in The Archaeology of Portable Art: Southeast Asian, Pacific, and Australian Perspectives (eds. Langley, M. C., Litster, M., Wright, D. & May, S. K.) Chapter 1 (Routledge, 2018).

  13. 13.

    Mellars, P. Going east: new genetic and archaeological perspectives on the modern human colonization of Eurasia. Science 313, 796–800 (2006).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Mellars, P., Gori, K. C., Carr, M., Soares, P. A. & Richards, M. B. Genetic and archaeological perspectives on the initial modern human colonization of southern Asia. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 10699–10704 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Glover, I. C. Leang Burung 2: an Upper Palaeolithic rock shelter in south Sulawesi, Indonesia. Mod. Quat. Res. SE Asia 6, 1–38 (1981).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Aubert, M. et al. Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature 514, 223–227 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Li, B. et al. IRSL dating of fast-fading sanidine feldspars from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Anc. TL 34, 1–13 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Brumm, A. et al. Early human symbolic behavior in the Late Pleistocene of Island Southeast Asia. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 4105–4110 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Groves, C. & Grubb, P. Ungulate Taxonomy (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2011).

  20. 20.

    Burton, J. A., Hedges, S. & Mustari, A. H. The taxonomic status, distribution and conservation of the lowland anoa Bubalus depressicornis and mountain anoa Bubalus quarlesi. Mammal Rev. 35, 25–50 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Groves, C. Systematics of the Anoa (Mammalia, Bovidae). Beaufortia 17, 1–12 (1969).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Rozzi, R. A new extinct dwarfed buffalo from Sulawesi and the evolution of the subgenus Anoa: an interdisciplinary perspective. Quat. Sci. Rev. 157, 188–205 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Davidson, D. S. Notes on the pictographs and petroglyphs of Western Australia and a discussion on their affinities with appearances elsewhere on the continent. Proc. Am. Philos. Soc. 96, 76–117 (1952).

    Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Schobinger, J. The Ancient Americans Vol. 1 (Routledge, 2002).

  25. 25.

    Willcox, A. R. The Rock Art of Africa (Croom Helm, 1984).

  26. 26.

    Diaz-Granados, C. & Duncan J. R. The Rock-Art of Eastern North America (Univ. of Alabama Press, 2004).

  27. 27.

    Flood, J. Rock Art of the Dreamtime (Angus and Robertson, 1997).

  28. 28.

    Orton, J. Geometric rock art in western South Africa and its implications for the spread of early herding. S. Afr. Archaeol. Bull. 68, 27–40 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Sterelny, K. From hominins to humans: how sapiens became behaviourally modern. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 366, 20100301 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Conard, N. J. A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany. Nature 459, 248–252 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Donald, M. Origins of Modern Mind (Harvard Univ. Press, 1991).

  32. 32.

    Gamble, C. The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999).

  33. 33.

    Noble, W. & Davidson, I. The evolutionary emergence of modern human behaviour. Man 26, 223–253 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Veth, P., Stern, M., McDonald, J., Balme, J. & Davidson, I. in Information and its Role in Hunter-Gatherer Bands (eds. Whallon, R., Lovis, W. A. & Hitchcock, R. K.) Chapter 9 (Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2011).

  35. 35.

    Balme, J., Davidson, I., McDonald, J., Stern, N. & Veth, P. Symbolic behaviour and the peopling of the southern arc route to Australia. Quat. Int. 202, 59–68 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Habgood, P. J. & Franklin, N. The revolution that didn’t arrive: a review of Pleistocene Sahul. J. Hum. Evol. 55, 187–222 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Conard, N. J. Palaeolithic ivory sculptures from southwestern Germany and the origins of figurative art. Nature 426, 830–832 (2003).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Bourrillon, R. et al. A new Aurignacian engraving from Abri Blanchard, France: implications for understanding Aurignacian graphic expression in Western and Central Europe. Quat. Int. 491, 46–64 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Yaroshevich, A. et al. A unique assemblage of engraved plaquettes from Ein Qashish South, Jezreel Valley, Israel: figurative and non-figurative symbols of Late Pleistocene hunters-gatherers in the Levant. PLoS ONE 11, e0160687 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Richter, D. et al. The age of the hominin from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the origins of the Middle Stone Age. Nature 546, 293–296 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    White, R. Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind (Abrams, 2003).

  42. 42.

    Graziosi, P. Palaeolithic Art (Faber and Faber, 1960).

  43. 43.

    Wedage, O. et al. Specialized rainforest hunting by Homo sapiens ~45,000 years ago. Nat. Commun. 10, 739 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information




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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michelle C. Langley.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Editor recognition statement Primary Handling Editor: Stavroula Kousta.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

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

Reporting Summary

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Langley, M.C., Hakim, B., Agus Oktaviana, A. et al. Portable art from Pleistocene Sulawesi. Nat Hum Behav 4, 597–602 (2020).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing