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In a cave in Indonesia, archaeologists have uncovered an ancient painting of a hunting party. And as NPR's Merrit Kennedy reports, it is one of several discoveries in the area that are challenging what we thought we knew about the origins of art.
MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Until recently, the long-held story was that humans started painting in caves in Europe. But several years ago, a group of scientists started dating cave paintings in Indonesia and found that they are thousands of years older.
ADAM BRUMM: They were at least 40,000 years old, which was a very, very surprising discovery.
KENNEDY: Adam Brumm is an archaeologist at Australia's Griffith University, and his team analyzed mineral deposits that formed over the works to figure out their age. They include tracings of a human hand and an image of a cow. And since that big reveal, the team has been searching for more art in these caves on the island of Sulawesi. In 2017, they found something breathtaking.
BRUMM: When you look up on the cave wall, you see all of these red paintings.
KENNEDY: Tests showed that this is our species' oldest known figurative art. It's a staggering 44,000 years old. And it tells a complicated story. The work stretches across a cave wall for 16 feet and shows hunters surrounding buffaloes and pigs, and the hunters in the story don't exactly look human.
BRUMM: They appear to be human, but they seem to have some features or characteristics of animals.
KENNEDY: Brumm thinks the part human, part animal figures show not only artistic ability of these ancient people but suggests that they could imagine things that they haven't actually seen.
BRUMM: Those artists were capable of the sorts of conceptualizations that we need in order to believe in religion, you know, to believe in the existence of the supernatural.
KENNEDY: He says the paintings in Indonesia, which the team described in the journal Nature, have complicated what we know about how figurative art began.
GENEVIEVE VON PETZINGER: The overall theme here, really, is that, yeah, we've vastly underestimated the capacity of our ancestors.
KENNEDY: Genevieve von Petzinger is a paleoanthropologist at the University of Victoria in Canada. She suspects that the oldest cave paintings came from a time before our ancestors branched out to Europe and Asia.
VON PETZINGER: Personally, I think that our ancestors already knew how to do art before they left Africa.
KENNEDY: So the story of art's beginnings may see yet another big revision.
Merrit Kennedy, NPR News.
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