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.
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.