Cave painting could be ‘oldest-recorded story’

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Is this picture the world’s oldest recorded story? Dating of a painting on the wall of a cave in Indonesia has revealed it to be 44,000 years old. Does it tell the story of a buffalo hunt?

What’s happening

A band of hunters, brandishing spears and ropes and flanked by wild pigs, stand their ground. Charging towards them is a frighteningly large buffalo — and the only path to victory, it seems, is for the hunters to become animals themselves.

That’s what this fascinating — and ancient — cave painting appears to show.

Find out more

The artwork was discovered in a cave on Sulawesi, an island in Indonesia in south-east Asia. Sulawesi is a treasure trove for cave art: it has at least 242 caves or shelters with ancient images, and more are being discovered.

This week scientists revealed the age of the painting. They studied build-ups of calcite “popcorn” that had formed on the paint. They measured levels of elements that decay over time, revealing that the calcite on one of the pigs began forming at least 43,900 years ago.

It’s not the world’s oldest drawing. Last year cross-hatch markings on a fragment of rock from South Africa were revealed to be nearly 73,000 years old.

But could it be the world’s oldest narrative artwork — and, therefore, the oldest story ever found?

Some say…

Yes. The depiction of local wild pigs and a type of buffalo called an “anoa” means the drawing is intrinsically linked to Sulawesi and its people. The paintings are in a line, giving a sense of progression. One of the hunters is depicted as part-human, part-animal, with a snout and tail, suggesting a story of transformation from man to beast.

Others think…

No. The panel does not represent a single, coherent story. It is more likely a series of images that were painted and added to over a longer period. "Whether it's a scene is questionable," says Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at Durham University.

You Decide

  1. What must a picture have for it to tell a story?

Activities

  1. Make your own cave painting, inspired by the Sulawesi art. Which animals would you draw? What story would you tell?

Some People Say...

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Joan Didion (1934-present), American writer

What do you think?

Word Watch

Flanked
Be on either side of.
Indonesia
A country in south-east Asia, made up of over 17,000 islands.
Calcite
A white or colourless mineral. It builds up in caves to form stalactites and stalagmites.
Narrative
An account of connected events; a story.
Depiction
the action of making a picture, especially in a work of art.
Progression
A number of things in a series.
Archaeologist
A person who studies history through the excavation of sites and artefacts.

Subjects

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