Oldest Figurative Cave Painting Found, Inviting Look at Prehistory

hunting scene dates back 44,000 years, experts say

By Jonny Lupsha, News Writer

An Indonesian cave painting predates earliest known works by 7,000 years, according to NPR. Figurative cave paintings were believed to have begun in France 37,000 years ago, but this new discovery dates back 44,000 years. Other early paintings have stories to tell, too.

Prehistoric drawing, representing a bull from Lascaux site
A 44,000-year-old Indonesian cave painting predates the earliest known French cave paintings by 7,000 years. Photo by Charbonnier Thierry / Shutterstock

The NPR article said that the painting in Indonesia was recently dated much farther back than the French cave paintings and depicts “a stunning scene of a hunting party.” The painting shows jungle buffaloes and wild pigs pursued by men with spears. Scientists used an analytical tool that measured uranium on the cave wall to give it an approximate age, turning our notions about early human artwork upside-down. However, the other early cave paintings of note—France’s Chauvet and Lascaux sites, and Spain’s Altamira—give excellent perspective to the recent Indonesian find.

Long Before the Louvre…

Until the recent discoveries in Indonesia, Chauvet was the site of the earliest cave paintings in prehistory, located in the Ardéche region of southern France.

“The huge cave, which may be as much as 400 meters long and cover more than 8,000 square meters, was first discovered and explored in late December of 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet and a small group of colleagues,” said Dr. Eric H. Cline, Professor of Classics and Anthropology and Director of The George Washington University Capitol Archaeological Institute. “Nearly 4,000 artifacts and animal bones have been found so far, as well as 1,000 images on the walls.”

As for the artwork itself? “The drawings and paintings here are simply exquisite; they include some of the earliest and best-preserved cave art in the world, depicting at least 13 different species—which range from lions, horses, and woolly rhinos to owls, mammoths, bears, and other animals,” Dr. Cline said. To this day, Chauvet has remained closed to the public, though it has been studied and reported on for over 20 years.

Its “younger sibling” is Lascaux, discovered by accident in 1940 by four teenage boys and their dog, and it is quite a sight to behold.

“The current entrance leads into the huge Hall of Bulls, which has four huge bulls more than five meters in length painted on the cave wall,” Dr. Cline said. “From the Hall of Bulls, you can proceed straight into the Axial Gallery. This area has paintings of cattle, deer, and horses; however, if you turn right, and then you go right again, you’re in the Great Apse. That has another 1,000 or more engravings on its walls.”

The Spanish Exhibition

Tourism in Lascaux has led to fungal problems that have done irreparable damage to some of the ancient paintings. The cave paintings of Altamira may suffer a similar, tragic fate.

“The paintings in the cave are usually dated towards the end of the Magdalenian period during the Paleolithic—that is, about 12,000 B.C., at the time of the end of the last Ice Age,” Dr. Cline said. “Of the animals that are painted or engraved on the walls, the most famous are those on the Polychrome Ceiling, which include a herd of bison, plus a couple of horses, a deer, and possibly other animals.”

According to Dr. Cline, this extravagant and historical site was closed to the public in 1979 due to fears that Altamira would suffer a fate similar to Lascaux. It was reopened by 2014, despite warnings from local scientists. In an odd and specific compromise, Dr. Cline said, five randomly selected visitors are allowed into Altamira for exactly 37 minutes once a week.

Prehistoric art and priceless knowledge surface from the most random places around the globe. If we can carefully study and appreciate them without damaging them, there’s a wealth of information about our ancestors that predates the written word just waiting to be uncovered, as is evidenced by the recent findings in Indonesia.

Dr. Eric H. Cline contributed to this article. Dr. Cline is a Professor of Classics and Anthropology and the current Director of The George Washington University (GWU) Capitol Archaeological Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in Ancient History from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from Yale University.

About Jonny Lupsha, News Writer 518 Articles
Jonny is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Sterling, Virginia. He has written for The Great Courses since 2017 and enjoys studying the courses as much as writing about them. Contact Jonny at lupshaj@teachco.com