A torch beam finds a stencil of a hand, its ochre outline surprisingly vibrant given its age. Next to it, a sketch of a babirusa—a type of wild “pig-deer” found in Indonesia—shows such attention to detail that the gender of the animal (female) is still clear nearly 36,000 years after its creation. It’s thought to be the oldest known example of figurative art in the world.
The Pleistocene-era rock art is spread throughout the karst caves within the Maros and Pangkep regions in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Researchers from Australia’s Griffith University used uranium series dating and found that one of the handprints was roughly 40,000 years old. The collection of paintings, which includes the handprint and the babirusa, contains artwork that is slightly older than the images found in European caves.
The rock art’s ancient age shattered the preexisting notion among many Western archaeologists and historians that the cave art originated in modern-day Europe. While little-known, these Indonesian cave drawings are even older than the famous stenciled caves in France and Spain.
But though it wasn’t celebrated until recently, the cave art wasn’t unknown. H.R Van Heekeren, a Dutch archaeologist, documented the figures and published his work in 1950. However, the paintings were deemed to be of no real significance and subsequently no additional exploration was done until nearly 60 years later.
The purpose behind the rock art is unclear. It’s commonly thought that sites with rock art are ceremonial, but there’s no actual evidence to say whether this is truly the case. One theory is that the rock art was an early library cataloging the animals and fish eaten by the people who dwelled here. Another theory is that the stenciled hands may have more symbolic meanings, such as protecting a house, expressing a person’s connection to the place, or attempting to communicate with the spiritual realm.
Getting to the karsts requires boating down the narrow river before an hour long walk through rice paddies. A monkey or two may shriek from the tops of the strange palm trees—described by the guide as “shrimpfingers”—before disappearing. Nearby, cows laze and graze under the monolith overhangs and ducks forage for huge snails in the rice paddies.