Earliest image of human hunting dated

What does the oldest hunting scene tell us about ourselves?
17 December 2019

Interview with 

Alice Samson, University of Leicester


A cave arch with light coming through the ceiling on the other side


Deep inside a cave, on the Island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, may lie the oldest ever cave art depiction of our ancestors hunting. Painted more than 40,000 years ago, it gives us a rare glimpse into how early humans may have thought and acted. Nadeem Gabbani asked cave art specialist Alice Samson, who wasn’t herself involved in the work to date the painting, which was published in Nature, for her reaction to the discovery...

Alice - This cave is quite hard to access. It's quite out of the way. The rock art is in a cave, the opening of which leads out from the back of another cave. It's like seven meters up in the cave wall. You have to scramble up there. And the rock art itself is like three metres above floor level. The art is actually really interesting and really quite beautiful. And what we see is quite a dynamic scene of multiple animals, that seemingly are sort of galloping across the wall; and then a whole bunch of smaller figures which the authors in the paper called therianthropes, which is basically a long word which means figures with combinations of human and animal features. So there's these kind of human/animal-y mini-figures chasing or scampering around after a lot of larger beasts. These are drawn in what looks like a kind of red ochre-y pigment or paint on the limestone walls of the cave.

Nadeem - Incredible. So they're also saying that this is the oldest hunting scene that has ever been found. What do you think they're hunting? What's the significance?

Alice - To be honest, we don't know what the original art actually means, okay. But the significance of it, in terms of understanding human evolution, and human cognition and thought processes, that's where its significance lies I think; because it's showing that as far back as like 40,000 years ago people were depicting abstract thoughts and ideas in artistic form, on for example cave walls or in small carvings. It's pretty exciting. This paper that these archaeologists have done has obtained some really early dates for for this rock art, which predates by several thousand years stuff that's found in the area, and also early palaeolithic rock art in Europe. Although the dates themselves... it's not actually a direct dating of the rock art. What they've done is used a technique called Uranium-Thorium dating, which dates flowstone, the way that stalagmites and stalactites form on top of the rock art. And so they've got a date for that material that's formed on top of the rock art, and that basically gives you a date before which the rock art must've been made. So the flowstone is dated to around 40,000 years ago, and the art underneath is then earlier than that.

Nadeem - How does this link to the migration of man from Africa, for example?

Alice - There were Homo sapiens in Southeast Asia much earlier than this rock art, but this rock art represents some of the earliest evidence for symbolic thought and abstract thinking by anatomically modern humans.

Nadeem - Briefly back to the rock art itself: these hunters, they have animal heads. Any comments about that?

Alice - This is a really common feature of early rock arts, okay. It often depicts humans and animals and human/animal-y things. We're obsessed, in our modern scientific approach to the world, in taxonomies and, you know, the difference between particular different species, and humans being separate, and different entities from animals and plants and things like that. But this is a particularly 'enlightenment' and modern, rational, scientific way of conceiving the world. And we cannot make the same assumptions about the past and about the ways in which people in the past saw their world. So yes it does look like a hunting scene. The authors have pointed to the presence of maybe ropes or spears, and the fact that these little figures, the little animal-human figures, are chasing maybe or corralling, or certainly interacting with these animals. So it certainly looks like it could be a hunting scene. But whether it's just a straightforward depiction of an everyday activity or whether it is something more complex than that, I think, is hard to say. I would say that it's actually speaking about much bigger topics about the relationships between humans and animals and their environments. This is not a casual activity. I imagine the actual painting of the rock art itself was a very significant and ritual practice rather than just a casual doodle.


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