Radically Old Indonesian Cave Paintings at Sulawesi

There is almost nothing as thrilling as seeing art made by our early human ancestors. The recent discovery of (very) early art in Indonesia is radically expanding the way that we understand the earliest human attempts to make art. The earliest of these images are 40,000 years old. This puts them at the earliest edges of European cave art, like that at the Chauvet Cave in France. The earliest images at Maros in Indonesia were made when one of our ancestors put their hand on the wall of a cave and sprayed paint over it. The result was a negative hand print. A later image from the same system (dating to 35,000 years ago) is of a wild pig.

The hand print is especially important. Many archaeologists now believe that cave art was part of prehistoric people's spiritual voyages from the world of the living to the Other World where magical and special creatures and beings dwelled. The best analogy is of modern and historic shamans who moved between worlds in order to acquire special knowledges and skills that were needed in the world of the everyday. In this journey, the cave wall was a membrane between the two worlds. When you put your hand on the wall and sprayed paint onto hand and wall, then you became part of that other world and your journey into it began.

In addition to its early date, what makes the Indonesian discovery so important is that archaeologists have traditionally focused their attention on European prehistoric art. These new discoveries continue to re-write our knowledge of humanity on a global scale. One of SFSU's particular expertise is in prehistoric art and visual anthropology. If you are excited about the Indonesian finds and about the origins of ancient and prehistoric art, then you should think about a possible MA in Anthropology with us. You will find full details on the M.A. section of this website, and you can email us for more details: AnthroMA@sfsu.edu.


You can read the recent publication by the specialists about this: 

The classic, authorative text on cave art is this one:

  • Lewis-Williams, D. 2002. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. London: Thames and Hudson.