Humans seem to have an adaptive predisposition for inventing, telling and consuming stories1. Prehistoric cave art provides the most direct insight that we have into the earliest storytelling2,3,4,5, in the form of narrative compositions or ‘scenes’2,5 that feature clear figurative depictions of sets of figures in spatial proximity to each other, and from which one can infer actions taking place among the figures5. The Upper Palaeolithic cave art of Europe hosts the oldest previously known images of humans and animals interacting in recognizable scenes2,5, and of therianthropes6,7—abstract beings that combine qualities of both people and animals, and which arguably communicated narrative fiction of some kind (folklore, religious myths, spiritual beliefs and so on). In this record of creative expression (spanning from about 40 thousand years ago (ka) until the beginning of the Holocene epoch at around 10 ka), scenes in cave art are generally rare and chronologically late (dating to about 21–14 ka)7, and clear representations of therianthropes are uncommon6—the oldest such image is a carved figurine from Germany of a human with a feline head (dated to about 40–39 ka)8. Here we describe an elaborate rock art panel from the limestone cave of Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 (Sulawesi, Indonesia) that portrays several figures that appear to represent therianthropes hunting wild pigs and dwarf bovids; this painting has been dated to at least 43.9 ka on the basis of uranium-series analysis of overlying speleothems. This hunting scene is—to our knowledge—currently the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world.
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This research was funded by Australian Research Council (ARC) fellowships awarded to M.A. (FT170100025) and A.B. (FT160100119), with further financial support from Griffith University. We thank Indonesia’s State Ministry of Research and Technology (RISTEK), I. Mahmud (Balai Arkeologi Sulawesi Selatan) and L. Aksa (Balai Pelestarian Cagar Budaya Makassar) for authorizing the research; and P. T. Semen Tonasa for providing access to the site. We acknowledge M. Kottermair, A. Jalandoni, D. P. McGahan, K. Newman and M. Langley for assistance with figure production. We thank P. Veth, B. David and P. S. C. Taçon for comments on the paper.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended data figures and tables
a, b, The shaft scene from Lascaux (about 21–14 ka) (a). This rock art panel is widely interpreted as depicting a bird-headed human figure (b) being charged by a bison that it has wounded with a spear; in a, the latter object is visible below the partly disembowelled bison. Another object depicted in this scene possibly represents a spearthrower with a sculpted representation of a bird at the proximal end19,20. c, d, The lion-man figurine from Hohlenstein–Stadel8. Carved in mammoth ivory, this 31.1-cm-tall image of Aurignacian age (about 40–39 ka) appears to represent a male human figure with the head of a cave lion8. The image in b is a digital tracing of the relevant section in a. Sources: Alamy, used under licence (a, c); Shutterstock, used under licence (d).
a, b, The site is located on the east side of an isolated limestone karst tower. c, Cross-section and plan view of the cave site. The cave with the dated rock art panel is positioned in a limestone cliff face and forms the upper level or ‘annex’, above a valley-floor entrance cave and shelter complex (a, c). The entrance to Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 is a small opening about 7.5 m above the ground floor of the lower cave (a). The cave is lit by a natural opening on the northeast face (c). The cave itself is formed in a sharply curved phreatic passage measuring 4 m in maximum width, and which is 5.9 m high at the entrance and 5.6 m high at the deepest point inside. The main rock art panel is situated in the light zone on the western wall of the cave, about 3 m above the ground floor surface (b). Other rock art inside the cave includes poorly preserved hand stencils and animal paintings. Aside from art, no other evidence for human occupation was observed in the cave.
a, b, Pig 1 shown in a digital tracing (a) and a photograph enhanced using DStretch (b). c, Photograph of pig 2 enhanced using DStretch. Pig 1 measures 123 × 58 cm. The painting is badly weathered. Much of the body area, and some of the head and mouth, are missing owing to at least two temporally distinct phases of erosion and flaking of the cave-wall surface. In the time that separated these periods of weathering, three narrow-fingered hand stencils32 were created in the upper body area of the pig. No canine tusks are evident, but the animal is apparently portrayed with a row of premolars and molars in the maxilla and mandible; the teeth are sharp and thus possibly relatively unworn—perhaps indicating that the pig was a relatively young adult. No sexual characteristics are evident. Pig 2 measures 84 × 42 cm and is also substantially deteriorated: most of the head area, and considerable portions of the body, are missing. This pig is positioned to the rear of pig 1 and faces in the same direction as this larger suid. It appears as though it is following behind it. A prominent crest or tuft of head hair, represented by a row of short vertical lines on the crown, is evident in the surviving part of the head area; this is a diagnostic morphological trait of the endemic Sulawesi warty pig (S. celebensis)12.
a, b, Therianthrope 1 shown in a photograph enhanced using DStretch (a) and in a digital tracing (b). c, Photograph of therianthrope 1, enhanced using DStretch, positioned adjacent to the head area of pig 1. On the leftmost side of the panel, therianthrope 1 (26 × 12 cm) is facing towards pig 1 and is possibly crouched down in an active position. In its left hand it is holding a long spear or rope that appears to be pointed directly at the head area of this animal, and may once have connected with it; it is not possible to be certain because this part of the panel is missing owing to exfoliation. Therianthrope 1 is depicted with a short, curved mammal-like tail (d, highlighted with red arrow). Although the head area of therianthrope 1 is incomplete because of the deterioration of the cave wall, a muzzle or beak-like face is also evident.
a, b, Therianthrope 2 and anoa 2 shown in a digital tracing (a) and photograph (b). c, Photograph of therianthrope 2, enhancing using DStretch. d, Photograph, enhancing using DStretch, of the unidentified, possible human figure to the left of anoa 1. Anoa 2 measures 74 × 29 cm. Although deteriorated, anoa 2 is clearly a dwarf bovid based on the overall body form, long tapering neck and the two straight horns visible in the head area. Therianthrope 2 is much smaller in size than anoa 2, and is positioned directly above it; therianthrope 2 appears to be holding a spear or rope that is entering (or attached to) the back of anoa 2. The area in which the head of therianthrope 2 would have been has been obliterated by exfoliation of the cave-wall surface, but although both of its arms are definitely human-like and it is evidently grasping a spear or rope, the line of the back and the shape of the neck seem to be notably similar to that of an anoa. Moreover, the bottom half of the figure is distinct from that of the top half, with a tapering profile that possibly merges into the base of a thick tail and with short, curved limbs splayed out to the side. In our opinion, this part of the body resembles the lower half of a lizard or crocodile. It is thus possible that therianthrope 2 represents a composite of at least three different kinds of animals: a human, an anoa and a quadrupedal reptile. Anoa 1, a small and incomplete animal figure (51 × 24 cm) is also visible in this part of the rock art panel. The head is missing but the overall form of the surviving portions of the body (which includes a tail) implies that it is an anoa. A possible human figure adjacent to anoa 1, and another motif above and to the left of it, are too poorly preserved for identification.
All photographs have been enhanced using DStretch. a, Therianthrope 3 (5 × 3 cm) is a stick-like figure with upraised arms and a projecting muzzle-like face. Therianthrope 3 is the only one of the therianthropes at Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 not depicted with a spear or rope. b, Therianthrope 4 (6.5 × 1 cm) is an apparently bird-headed human figure holding a spear or rope. c, Therianthrope 5 (8 × 2 cm) is poorly preserved, but seems to be a human figure with a face similar to that of therianthrope 1. The figure is positioned near an object that may be a spear or rope. d, Therianthrope 6 (5 × 1 cm) has a sinuous reptilian body and a bird-like face. A spear or rope is lying below this figure. e, Therianthrope 7 (6 × 2 cm) apparently has a human body and upper arms (the legs are too poorly preserved for analysis), but has a pointy head and face that are not human-like in form. This figure is seemingly holding a very long spear or rope that is trailing from the chest area of anoa 3, just below the throat (Fig. 2c, d). f, Therianthrope 8 (4 × 1.7 cm) is also grasping an extremely long spear or rope using two human-like arms, but the shape of the body, neck and head of this figure—especially the elongate, projecting face—are not human-like. The object held by therianthrope 8 appears to trail from the lower neck or upper shoulder of anoa 3 (Fig. 2c, d).
a, b, Location of the in situ speleothem overlying part of pig 1. c, Cross-section of BSP4.2 showing the pigment layer sandwiched between the cave-wall surface and layers of calcite comprising the speleothem that formed over the artwork. Solution U-series dates for a total of five micromilled subsamples (n = 5) (BSP4.2.1 to BSP4.2.5) are indicated. The dotted lines represent schematically the micromilling spits used during the subsampling procedure. Minimum dates are quoted as the measured age minus 2σ, rounded to two decimal places.
a, b, Location of the in situ speleothem overlying part of pig 1. c, Cross-section of BSP4.3 showing the pigment layer sandwiched between the cave-wall surface and layers of calcite comprising the speleothem that formed over the artwork. Solution U-series dates for a total of five micromilled subsamples (n = 5) (BSP4.3.1 to BSP4.3.5) are indicated. The dotted lines represent schematically the micromilling spits used during the subsampling procedure. Minimum dates are quoted as measured age minus 2σ, rounded to two decimal places.
a, Location of the in situ speleothem overlying part of anoa 2. b, Cross-section of BSP4.4 showing the pigment layer sandwiched between the cave-wall surface and layers of calcite comprising the speleothem that formed over the artwork. Solution U-series dates for a total of three (n = 3) micromilled subsamples (BSP4.4.1 to BSP4.4.3) are indicated. The dotted lines represent schematically the micromilling spits used during the subsampling procedure. Minimum dates are quoted as measured age minus 2σ, rounded to two decimal places.
a, Location of the in situ speleothem overlying part of anoa 3. b, Cross-section of BSP4.5 showing the pigment layer sandwiched between the cave-wall surface and layers of calcite comprising the speleothem that formed over the artwork. Solution U-series dates for a total of five (n = 5) micromilled subsamples (BSP4.5.1 to BSP4.5.5) are indicated. The dotted lines represent schematically the micromilling spits used during the subsampling procedure. Minimum dates are quoted as measured age minus 2σ, rounded to two decimal places.
3D PhotoScan model of the dated rock art panel at Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4.
Uranium-series dating results for coralloid speleothem samples from Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4. This table contains the results of uranium-series disequilibrium dating of rock art motifs (n=4). Note: Ratios are activity ratios calculated from the atomic ratios. Errors are at 2δ level. The ages are calculated using Isoplot 3.75 Program37 with decay constants from ref. 36. Corrected ages were calculated assuming initial/detrital 230Th/232Th activity ratio equal 0.825 (± 50%) (the bulk-Earth value, which is the most commonly used for initial/detrital 230Th corrections).
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Aubert, M., Lebe, R., Oktaviana, A.A. et al. Earliest hunting scene in prehistoric art. Nature 576, 442–445 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1806-y
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