A Recently-Discovered 44,000-Year-Old Cave Painting Tells the Oldest Known Story

Where did art begin? In a cave, most of us would say — espe­cial­ly those of us who’ve seen Wern­er Her­zog’s Cave of For­got­ten Dreams — and specif­i­cal­ly on the walls of caves, where ear­ly humans drew the first rep­re­sen­ta­tions of land­scapes, ani­mals, and them­selves. But when did art begin? The answer to that ques­tion has proven more sub­ject to revi­sion. The well-known paint­ings of the Las­caux cave com­plex in France go back 17,000 years, but the paint­ings of that same coun­try’s Chau­vet cave, the ones Her­zog cap­tured in 3D, go back 32,000 years. And just two years ago, Grif­fith Uni­ver­si­ty researchers dis­cov­ered art­work on a cave on the Indone­sian island of Sulawe­si that turns out to be about 44,000 years old.

Here on Open Cul­ture we’ve fea­tured the argu­ment that ancient rock-wall art con­sti­tutes the ear­li­est form of cin­e­ma, to the extent that its unknown painters sought to evoke move­ment. But cave paint­ings like the one in Sulawe­si’s cave Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4, which you can see in the video above, also shed light on the nature of the ear­li­est known forms of sto­ry­telling.

The “four­teen-and-a-half-foot-wide image, paint­ed in dark-red pig­ment,” writes The New York­er’s Adam Gop­nik, depicts “about eight tiny bipedal fig­ures, bear­ing what look to be spears and ropes, brave­ly hunt­ing the local wild pigs and buf­fa­lo.” This first known narrative“tells one of the sim­plest and most res­o­nant sto­ries we have: a tale of the hunter and the hunt­ed, of small and eas­i­ly mocked pur­suers try­ing to bring down a scary but vul­ner­a­ble beast.”

Like oth­er ancient cave art, the paint­ing’s char­ac­ters are the­ri­anthropes, described by the Grif­fith researchers’ Nature arti­cle as “abstract beings that com­bine qual­i­ties of both peo­ple and ani­mals, and which arguably com­mu­ni­cat­ed nar­ra­tive fic­tion of some kind (folk­lore, reli­gious myths, spir­i­tu­al beliefs and so on).” Giv­en the appar­ent impor­tance of their roles in ear­ly sto­ries, how much of a stretch would it be to call these fig­ures the first super­heroes? “Indeed, the cave paint­ing could be entered as evi­dence into a key aes­thet­ic and sto­ry­telling argu­ment of today — the debate between the pal­adins of Amer­i­can film, Mar­tin Scors­ese and Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la, and their Mar­vel Cin­e­mat­ic Uni­verse con­tem­po­raries,” writes Gop­nik.

If you haven’t fol­lowed this strug­gle for the soul of sto­ry­telling in the 21st cen­tu­ry, Scors­ese wrote a piece in The New York Times claim­ing that today’s kind of block­buster super­hero pic­ture isn’t cin­e­ma, in that it shrinks from “the com­plex­i­ty of peo­ple and their con­tra­dic­to­ry and some­times para­dox­i­cal natures, the way they can hurt one anoth­er and love one anoth­er and sud­den­ly come face to face with them­selves.” (“He didn’t say it’s despi­ca­ble,” Cop­po­la lat­er added, “which I just say it is.”) And yet, as Gop­nik puts it, “our old­est pic­ture sto­ry seems to belong, whether we want it to or not, more to the Mar­vel uni­verse than to Mar­ty Scorsese’s.” If we just imag­ine how those the­ri­anthropes — “A human with the strength of a bull! Anoth­er with the guile of a croc­o­dile!” — must have thrilled their con­tem­po­rary view­ers, we’ll under­stand these cave paint­ings for what they are: ear­ly art, ear­ly sto­ry­telling, ear­ly cin­e­ma, but above all, ear­ly spec­ta­cle.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Was a 32,000-Year-Old Cave Paint­ing the Ear­li­est Form of Cin­e­ma?

40,000-Year-Old Sym­bols Found in Caves World­wide May Be the Ear­li­est Writ­ten Lan­guage

Archae­ol­o­gists Dis­cov­er the World’s First “Art Stu­dio” Cre­at­ed in an Ethiopi­an Cave 43,000 Years Ago

Hear the World’s Old­est Instru­ment, the “Nean­derthal Flute,” Dat­ing Back Over 43,000 Years

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.