Featured Journal Content
Volume 576 Issue 7787, 19 December 2019
Article | 11 December 2019
Earliest hunting scene in prehistoric art
A rock art panel from Sulawesi—dated to at least 43.9 thousand years ago—represents the oldest currently known figurative art in the world, and provides evidence of early storytelling through narrative hunting scenes.
Maxime Aubert, Rustan Lebe[…] & Adam Brumm
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.