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Earliest hunting scene in prehistoric art

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Abstract and Figures

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 storytelling2–5, 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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442 | Nature | Vol 576 | 19/26 December 2019
Article
Earliest hunting scene in prehistoric art
Maxime Aubert1,2,8, Rustan Lebe3, Adhi Agus Oktaviana1,4,8, Muhammad Tang3,
Basran Burhan2, Hamrullah7, Andi Jusdi3, Abdullah3, Budianto Hakim5, Jian-xin Zhao6,
I. Made Geria4, Priyatno Hadi Sulistyarto4, Ratno Sardi5 & Adam Brumm2,8*
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 storytelling2–5, in the form of narrative compositions or ‘scenes’2,5 that feature
clear gurative depictions of sets of gures in spatial proximity to each other, and
from which one can infer actions taking place among the gures5. 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 ction 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 gurine 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 gures 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 gurative artwork in the world.
Previous uranium-series (U-series) dating has suggested that the oldest
known figurative cave art is found in Indonesia
9–11
. Up until now, the
earliest minimum U-series ages for representative artworks reflect
dates of 40ka for a naturalistic painting of a wild bovid in Kalimantan10
and, from south Sulawesi, 35.4ka for a painting of a pig—possibly a
female babirusa
9
or young Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis)
12
. Non-
figurative rock art dated to 65ka in Spain
13
has been attributed to Nean-
derthals, but this claim has been questioned on various grounds
1416
.
With a minimum age of 40.8ka, the earliest dated art that is generally
attributed to modern humans in Europe is an abstract ‘disc’ sign from
the rock art site of El Castillo in Spain
17
. Although animal motifs are
abundant in the Pleistocene cave art of Indonesia9–11 and Europe7,17, in
both regions humans hunting fauna are very seldom depicted; com-
posite human–animal figures are also uncommon. In Europe, images
of lone animals that are seemingly impaled by projectiles are docu-
mented in art of Magdalenian cultures (dating to about 21–14ka)
18
;
however, the motifs that are regarded by some as spears or arrows are
subject to varying interpretations7. In terms of parietal imagery, one
of very few obvious narrative compositions
5
is the famous scene from
the shaft (or ‘well’) at Lascaux (France)19,20 (Extended Data Fig.1). This
Magdalenian rock art panel apparently depicts a bird-headed man
being charged by a wounded bison
19,20
. The shaft scene is the subject
of considerable speculation
20
, but some scholars believe it represents
a real hunt
7
; if this is the case, so far as we can ascertain this would be
the oldest narrative composition that portrays a hunting scene in Euro-
pean art. The earliest image that is generally accepted to represent a
therianthrope is the Löwenmensch (‘lion-man’) figurine, a 31.1-cm-tall
mammoth-ivory statuette of an apparently part-human, part-lion
https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1806-y
Received: 9 May 2019
Accepted: 18 October 2019
Published online: 11 December 2019
1Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit (PERAHU), Grifith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Grifith University, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. 2Australian Research Centre for
Human Evolution, Environmental Futures Research Institute, Grifith University, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. 3Balai Pelestarian Cagar Budaya, Makassar, Indonesia. 4Pusat Penelitian
Arkeologi Nasional (ARKENAS), Jakarta, Indonesia. 5Balai Arkeologi Sulawesi Selatan, Makassar, Indonesia. 6School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane,
Queensland, Australia. 7Unafiliated: Hamrullah. 8These authors contributed equally: Maxime Aubert, Adhi Agus Oktaviana, Adam Brumm. *e-mail: a.brumm@grifith.edu.au
Sulawesi
010 20 40 km
Elevation (m)
High: 3,300
Low: 0
Bathymetry (m)
High: 0
Low: –6,300
N
Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4
Fig. 1 | Site lo cation in Sul awesi, Indone sia. The lim estone cave of Le ang Bulu’
Sipong4 is a rock ar t site in the tower k arst region of Pa ngkep. Map data: ST RM 1
Arc-Secon d Global by NASA /NGS/U SGS and GEBCO_ 2014 Grid versio n
2015031 8 (http://gebco.net). Base map cre ated by M. Kotter mair and
A. Jalandoni.
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