The painting I’m looking at depicts a hunt. But the hunters are not people like us, even though the artists were fellow Homo sapiens. The characters are tiny animal-human hybrids, some with tails and beaks, others holding spears and ropes. These figures are known as therianthropes (from the Greek theríon meaning “wild animal” or “beast” and anthrōpos meaning “human being”), and are found in many ancient cultures, from Greek centaurs to Anubis, the dog-headed Egyptian god of death. In the painting, six of them charge at pigs and an anoa, a midget buffalo endemic to Sulawesi, a starfish-shaped island in eastern Indonesia. The artist or artists made stylistic choices in rendering their subjects: the anoa’s body is bigger, its hoofs more elegant than the animals in the flesh. The buffalo towers over the humanoids. Altogether, they evoke a time when the planet belonged to animals and animals did not belong to us. The people who painted this started making pictures almost as soon as they arrived in this archipelago from continental Asia, after the last ice age, around 45,000 years ago. They inhabited an implacable world, dodging intense rain showers, hunting, gathering and fishing at great personal risk, living in cramped caves or under the stars, at the mercy of the elements.
This painting was discovered in the Bulu Sipong cave on Sulawesi in 2016 and recent analysis has shown that it is the “oldest pictorial record of storytelling” and the “earliest figurative artwork in the world”, and is at least 43,900 years old. (The oldest known drawing in the world, a 73,000-year-old abstract scribble, was found in South Africa in 2018.) My communion with the painting, however, was interrupted by a series of loud explosions – because one of the world’s oldest art galleries lies inside a mining concession.
A few days before Christmas last year, I went to the Indonesian port city of Makassar to meet a swashbuckling archaeologist named Budianto Hakim. He is known as Budi, but I came to call him Indonesia Jones, a nickname that was soon adopted by his colleagues. Tanned, stocky and wearing a khaki safari suit, Budi certainly looked the part. His hair was unruly and his large, blunt fingers were usually fishing for a cigarette, except when preoccupied with his favourite hobby: knapping prehistoric flint tools.
In a cavernous storage room at the South Sulawesi Archaeology Centre on the edge of Makassar, he walked me past piles of artefacts that had been excavated nearby, from Neolithic arrowheads to 17th-century blue-and-white ceramics from Indonesia’s brisk trade with Qing-era China. As we toured the building, Budi explained how he became obsessed with the history of Sulawesi, the large island to the east of Bali where he was born. Growing up as the son of schoolteachers, he read voraciously. When Budi went to college, he picked a field that satiated his thirst for adventure: one that would, as he described in true Indiana Jones style, let him “sleep with the snakes”.
Since graduating, Budi has explored at least 300 caves in Sulawesi, an island where every arm has a distinct climate and whose landscapes range from misty highlands to dense forests. Animals have even evolved into different species between the island’s appendages: the black-crested macaque is found only in the north and the booted macaque in the south-east. Budi has written or co-written dozens of research papers that span tens of thousands of years of history on Sulawesi. His latest work may be his most important yet. The paintings discovered in Sulawesi, including the depiction of pig hunters that I came to see, have rewritten art history. It is no longer believed that figurative painting started in Europe, where the rock art of El Castillo in Spain and the Chauvet Cave in France have been dated to around 40,000 years ago.
I thought convincing Budi to bring me to this historic site would be the hard part. But it turned out even he had to get permission to go, because the painting sits on land owned by the Tonasa Cement Company, inside a large mining concession which Tonasa bought from the Indonesian government in 1984, decades before the cave paintings were discovered. Tonasa has cordoned off a protected area around the painting, but it holds the keys to the site and continues to mine around it. “It’s not ideal,” grumbled Budi, whose colleagues at the South Sulawesi Cultural Heritage Preservation Centre already work with limited resources to steward the province’s heritage against degradation.
We drove to the site with six Tonasa employees, who wore baseball caps and white polo shirts embroidered with the firm’s motto: “Together we build a better future”. They were eager to tell us about Tonasa’s plans to open a museum near the paintings and win the site UNESCO recognition, adding that the paintings are currently open to any visitors who ask the company for access. Only a few dozen have taken up their offer since December, when the discovery was announced publicly.
On arrival at the site, Budi and I walked a few minutes to the entrance and I clambered up a bamboo ladder, directly into the painting chamber, which is about 25 feet off the ground. The wall that the prehistoric artists chose for the painting is a perfect canvas, with a natural window for sunlight. It still throbs with life. The porous limestone walls are laced with thick brown arteries of twigs and creepers; below it, the ground teems with large ants and dark-blue millipedes which dart through the dirt. I craned my neck to take in the ancient fresco in full.
“They were brave,” said Budi about the ancient Sulawesi painters. Hunting anoa and wild pigs would have been dangerous, he said, especially with primitive tools. He spoke about them proudly and with familiarity, as if they were his grandparents, and often prefaced his brusque sentences to say he was speaking as anak bangsa, a “child of this nation”. Budi believed these ancient painters lived in the same lowlands where his own ethnic group, the Bugis, build their houses on stilts today.
“I want every student in Indonesia to know that art came from here. From us,” Budi said, later. He believes that discovering prehistoric art is particularly important in Indonesia, a country where written records from even a few centuries ago are virtually impossible to find – paper doesn’t keep well in the tropics. Much else of the archipelago’s material heritage has been destroyed by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. For Budi, these ancient paintings mean more than a boost to tourist numbers or even the archeological record: they form a core part of Indonesian identity. “Our ancestors were intelligent humans,” he said.
“This cave was used for rituals,” Budi continued, as we gazed at the ancient artwork. “There are no other signs of occupation. They came only to make the paintings, maybe to pray to whomever they thought was their God.” Humanity has always sought refuge in caves. Hindu yogis, Celtic seers, Senegalese Sufis, the first Buddhists and the Ancient Greeks all retreated into them for spiritual enlightenment. Religious thought is believed by some scholars to have emerged from the creative act of imagining persons or creatures in their absence. From this perspective, the figures here are not merely art, but a fingerprint of faith itself.
When I snapped out of my transfixing encounter and Budi’s breezy exegesis, I noticed that the painting’s surface was peeling everywhere. It’s disappearing at a rate of up to 3cm per year, according to the preservation centre. The presence of humans degrades ancient artwork; the Lascaux cave paintings in France were permanently closed to tourists in 1963, because visitors’ breath created carbon dioxide that damaged its frescoes and caused algae and calcite formation. (Where visitors to “Lascaux” actually go today is an elaborate reproduction called “Lascaux II.”) In the cave, I took shallow, guilty breaths.
But I also kept stealing glances through the cave’s mouth, which opened in the direction of the white Tonasa factory that sits just four kilometres away, puffing smoke. Also visible from my perch were supply trucks going back and forth on the dirt road every few minutes, loaded with raw limestone. And throughout our visit, we had to stop periodically each time an explosion reverberated through the cave, like a thunderclap.
Dust from traffic and mining is the biggest danger to prehistoric art here, according to Maxime Aubert, an Australian archaeologist who led the research team that dated this painting. Drilling also affects the delicate hydrological system of the karst, the limestone formations where prehistoric paintings are usually found. This can lead to the painting’s surface peeling and the deterioration of their pigments, according to Budi. Logging trees to clear ground for mining also changes the caves’ temperature and humidity and increases carbon dioxide in the air, which hastens the dissolution of the limestone. (Tonasa representatives denied that mining had any of these effects.)
New prehistoric art is found in Sulawesi every year, so it’s likely that other nearby caves have undiscovered ancient paintings in them. Tonasa signed a contract with the preservation centre in 2017 promising to protect the Bulu Sipong cave and to report new archaeological findings from the site. But other large swathes of South Sulawesi karst were acquired by Bosowa, another cement company, for just 2500 rupiah, or about 68 pence, per square metre in 1996. And Bosowa has no such protection agreement with the regional government, which worries archaeologists like Budi.
The visible encroachment of industry around the cave meant I left it haunted by a sense of loss. But Budi was less sentimental about the fate of the world’s oldest painting. “Look, our work there is done. It’s out of our hands now. We documented it as best we could,” he said, as we drove away. He has already moved on to researching other caves in nearby Maros. There is not much time to dwell on achievements in this part of the world, where archaeologists must race against mining and deforestation. I turned to get one last look at the site out the window, but all I could see was the top of the factory. “There are so many more paintings here,” said Budi, “and we have to find those too. It’s the least we can do. For our ancestors.”