The World’s Oldest Painting Has Been Discovered In Indonesia

In a remarkable discovery, archaeologists have uncovered the oldest known artwork that tells a story among the towering rock walls of an Indonesian island.

Researchers from Griffith University and other Indonesian organisations have carefully examined the rock art, one of several found in South Sulawesi’s lowland karst region. The study’s primary focus is a recently reported painting that shows three human-like characters conversing with a pig. Researchers speculate that this “enigmatic scene” might be a hunting narrative.

“The artist took care to position these four separate figurative images in spatial proximity to each other and portrayed them interacting in a way that allows an observer to infer actions taking place among the figures. The result is a composed scene that communicates a story.” He added, “These are sophisticated techniques that remain an important part of the extremely diverse artistic cultures and storytelling traditions found in all human societies today,” said Adam Brumm, a study author and professor of archaeology at Griffith University in Brisbane.

The rock art panel at Leang Karampuang depicts the interaction between humanoid people and a pig. It is currently thought to be the oldest narrative scene ever documented and, according to the study, the oldest known example of figurative cave art. Researchers determined that the pigment was applied to the rock wall at least 51,200 years ago using a unique dating technique. This is an ancient piece of narrative art because storytelling compositions did not become prevalent until about 14,000–11,000 years ago.

More than 35,000 years ago, most art was restricted to abstract shapes without connection to the outside world. Several rock art pieces from this era are symbolic; they show identifiable objects and individuals from everyday life, like people and animals. Still, these are incredibly uncommon, with a sizable population on the island of Sulawesi.

The development of narrative art represents a significant turning point in human history. As societies and groups changed, artwork evolved to reflect reality and communicate deeper ideas, moving from abstract shapes to realistic representations.

Sulawesi’s role in this development might prompt curiosity, but similar complex artworks were likely being created elsewhere during this period. The island’s uniqueness lies in the preservation and discovery of these paintings. “It’s probably a preservation bias: that is, humans were using similar forms of image-making elsewhere in the world at an equivalent period and earlier, but the evidence either hasn’t survived or is it as yet undiscovered,” Professor Brumm elaborated.

“The Sulawesi art is now the oldest known surviving evidence of this key development in art history, but it probably had its ultimate beginnings somewhere in Africa where our species evolved,” he noted.

This groundbreaking study is published in the journal Nature.

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