Ancient Rock Art of Mythical Half-human Creatures Hunting Animals Is Oldest Ever Discovered

The earliest ever depiction of a hunting scene has been discovered in a cave in Indonesia. The rock art, which shows human-like figures hunting buffalo and pigs, has been dated to around 44,000 years ago—the oldest example found anywhere in the world.

Scientists say the depiction of mythical half-human creatures may suggest some sort of abstract, religious or spiritual thinking among these early artists who created them.

A team led by Maxime Aubert and Adam Brumm, both from Australia's Griffith University, first found the rock art in 2017. During a rock art survey of the limestone caves in in south Sulawesi, one of the researchers noticed what appeared to be the entrance to a cave higher up that had never been seen before. He climbed up and across what Brumm describes as a "sheer cliff face" before entering the unexplored cave.

"We were WhatsApped some pixelated smartphone snaps of the art almost right away and were totally blown away by it because it seemed to be the first hunting scene we had ever found in the ancient prehistoric cave art of Sulawesi as well as the first portrayals of therianthropes (part-human, part-animal creatures)," Brumm told Newsweek over email.

Once they were able to study the rock art more closely, the team was able to carry out dating on the images. Their findings, published in the journal Nature, showed the pictures were created at least 44,000 years ago. "Based on our prior research we had an inkling that the art was likely to be Pleistocene ('ice age') but we were very surprised when the dating results showed it was the oldest art ever discovered in the region—and possibly the earliest rock art made by our species."

Before this find, the oldest known rock art dated to about 40,000 years ago and is also found in Indonesia. The earliest examples of images depicting humans and animals interacting are found in cave art in Europe. These date to between 21,000 and 14,000 years ago.

hunting cave art panorama
Image showing the figures of the cave art from 44,000 years ago. Adam Brumm, Ratno Sardi and Adhi Agus Oktaviana

The newly discovered images cover about 15 foot of a cave wall. The monochromal paintings depict eight therianthropes—creatures that are part human part animal. These figures are hunting what appears to be two pigs and four small buffalo. The human-like figures appear to be holding spears or ropes. Analysis showed all the elements were drawn at the same time, in the same style and with the same pigment.

Researchers say the presence of therianthropes suggests a deeper level of thinking about the connection between humans and animals, potentially as a means of communicating a story.

"We can't know what these images of part-human, part-animal creatures meant to the unknown artists who created them at least 44,000 year ago," Brumm said. "Perhaps it is a religious myth or story, some sort of folklore tradition and so on—we simply will never know. What we can say is that these paintings of therianthropes are the oldest depictions of this kind known to archaeology and thus that this cave harbours the earliest evidence for our capacity to imagine the existence of supernatural beings—a prerequisite of religious belief."

cave entrance indonesia
Researchers at the entrance to the cave. Ratno Sardi