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The 45,500 year old Sulawesi Warty Pig – 1

January 21, 2021

Sulawesi Pigs

Much is being made of the discovery of what is estimated to be a 45,500 year “pig painting” in a hidden valley on the Indonesia island of Sulawesi. Although there are, by now, a sizable catalogue of Cromagnon wall paintings and other art forms (sculptures, art done on tools) the Sulawesi wall painting,at what is referred to as the the Leang Tedongnge site, in a “mulburry-hued pigment” is considered the oldest one so far discovered.

It might be somewhat older than its announced age as the 45,500 year date is a result of uranium-series dating that tests the age of a mineral deposit, speleothem which aggregates on cave walls in close proximity to the painting itself. It is, without a doubt, a wonderful discovery, but although the date is unique, the discovery itself is far from it.

The painting certainly resembles a pig – an example of the “photographic” tradition in early human art. Turns out that the animal in the painting has an uncanny resemblance to what is referred to as a “warty pig” that still calls the island of Sulawesi home today, now, like so many others, a critically endangered species. Plus there are the hand imprints above the rump very similar to those found in the cave art in southern France where they also abound. Are they the artists signature so to speak? Or do they have some other kind of symbolic meaning of which we are unfamiliar. I dunno.

Mentioned it the same NY Times article, not far from the “warty pig” site is yet another Sulawesi early cave art site, this one a bit younger at 43,900 years of age. Discovered only four years ago, in 2017, and nearby, is a cave whose deep interior contains eight figures, among them more wild pigs and a species of dwarf water buffalo known as anoas. These figures are known as “therianthropes”, half human, half animal figures that are also quite commonly found along with animal figures, their heads animal-like on what appears to be human bodies. As NY Times writer Becky Ferreira noted in her December 2019 article,

For whoever painted these figures, they represented much more than ordinary human hunters. One appears to have a large beak while another has an appendage resembling a tail.

Such therianthropes – from whom the idea of werewolves are probably drawn – are found all over the world. Our assumption, given credance by the number of these figures in cave art everywhere, are speculated to have some kind of animistic, or religious value – as do the entire experience of people making art deep in the chambers of caves.

modern day warty pig

Cromagnon Art

Both of these Sulawesi caves with their – on human terms – very old, if not seminal works of art – bare similarities to caves with art found elsewhere in the world – in Europe, Asia, Africa especially. In the Americas there is a considerable amount of early art, but it tends to be referred to as rock art as this is where it is found while cave art is rarer. But all this early art is characterized by similar patterns, among them:

  • The art is of very high quality more than likely done by specialists. Although there are places where “scribbles” models of the more elaborate art are found, most cave art is done by masters who don’t make mistakes either in color, texture or shape. It is striking how well the art is done, so well that when it was first discovered – as in the northern Spanish cave of Altimari, specialists were convinced that the art was fraudulent because the did not believe that early humanity – those living 50,000 years ago or thereabouts – could create such masterpieces.
  • The art contains examples of what might be called both “photographic” and “symbolic” art. No doubt, like our Sulawesian pig – or the art of Lascaux, Altimara, Chauvet – the painted figures are easily recognizable; while others, the therianthropes”, in many places different geometric shapes, or patterns of parallel scratch lines, are much more difficult, if not impossible to explain. The fact that there are repeated patterns though suggests some kind of symbolic value to them that we are yet to understand or give meaning to beyond speculation. The work of Genevieve von Petzinger of the University of Victoria to make sense of the dots and geometric patterns in this regard is promising.
  • The early art – like the world itself – depicts a world in which humans are rarely painted and when they are, either in crude sketch form (as at Lascaux) or therianthropically as mentioned above, also widespread. In a world in which, unlike now, humans were actually a small, if not tiny, percentage of landed mammals roaming the earth this should not be so unusual or surprising. “We” were in the minority; “they” – the rest of the mammalian and reptile species were much more abundant. Given that pretty much everywhere, cave art has a high concentration of large animals, there is the assumption, which I will develop below, that these large animals – the warty pig of Sulawesi, the lions of Chauvet, the mastodons and aurochs of Lascauz – were venerated more or less in the same manner that the (what are left of) modern hunting and gathering peoples venerate the animals that they hunt today.
  • Although, to my knowledge the Sulawesi finds have not, until now included tool kits or other items, what stands out about “art” in this formative period of human culture is that it is everywhere. Not just paintings on cave walls, but sculptures, some of them free standing some carved in creative manner into the texture of the rock itself. And the art tumbles out of the caves and is found pretty much on everything that early humanity, Cromagnon, as we were referred to. That includes tools, weapons, utensils. There is art – near the entrance of caves – that appears to be decorative, not much different seeing a painting in a person’s living room. Photographic, symbolic and decorative! There are pieces of art that seem to have no utilitarian value at all, but seem to have aestetic value.
  • It is an explosions of art, a creative explosion, of which the Sulawesi examples are a small if fascinating part.
  • Then there the odd fact that most of the best art is found in unlikely places, deep in the heart of caves, in chambers difficult to almost impossible to access, in places that all indications were not living sites. They are found in difficult to access obscure locations. The Sulawesi discoveries fit this pattern too. As Adam Brumm, an archeologist at Griffith University noted:

“Getting to it [the Leang Tedongnge site]requires a difficult trek along a rough forest path that winds through mountainous terrain and ends in a narrow cave passage, which is the only entrance to the valley,” said Adam Brumm, also an archaeologist at Griffith University and a co-author of the study. “The valley can only be accessed during the dry season; during the wet season the valley floor is completely flooded and the residents have to travel around on dugout canoes

This is typical.

The difficulty of access, the hidden nature of the art, deep in the bowels of caves, raises the question: why in the world would early artists go to such extremes – think of

them lugging their paints, brushes, themselves, into these darkened corners to create works of such magnificence. The location of the art surely suggests that some of the masterpieces of Cromagnon art sited above – and the literally thousands more that have been discovered – were not meant for “casual viewing” as we would today in an art museum. And in some of the better studied caves, the archeological evidence suggests that the places of the cave art are not living places and were only rarely visited.

So………..what’s the deal?

Any study of this early art needs to be taken in its broader context. If the art itself is new, a break through in human history the broader context in which it is created is even more so. so. It’s useful to keep in mind that the history of the primate mammalian family that modern day humans are a part of is extremely old and in fact as new skeletal discoveries continue to be made the date of their – or should I more accurately say “our” – emergence from the trees has continuously been pushed back from 3, 4 million years ago 75 years ago to now nearly double that, as has our understanding of the striking diversity of the forms involved.

While exploring that history for signs of cultural activity has not been easy – unless they are made of stone, cultural items tend to decompose – still now that human paleontology is more than a century old, a certain broader pattern of accumulated evidence has emerged that is suggestive.

What are the main features of that pattern?

Briefly put – what might be called human culture – the transmission of learned behaviors, ideas, skills from one generation to the next – develops over a very long period very slowly until it reaches what might be called “a break out point,” today estimated at approximately 50,000 years ago, after which it, human culture literally explodes in a manner unprecedented in the history of our species – or those we emerged from. The cave art both in its photographic and symbolic forms is a part of the package that  makes up that cultural explosion.

Yes there is a cultural evolution prior to that – along with an increase in brain size – but it is painfully slow and generally uneventful. Roughly hewn stone tools, the existence of which are somewhere around 2-to -2.5 million years ago begin to take on somewhat more technically advanced features about a half million years ago and there are even a few hand axe specimens that suggest they were created for aestetic rather than practical use. There are growing indications that by around the same time, humans had mastered the use of fire, no small accomplishment. There is enhanced geographic distribution out of Africa as well which necessitated learning new survival skills, broadening the factors that we call culture.

Art carved on an atl atl (a spear throwing tool). It is informational in nature. The give info about the change in seasons and breeding habits of salmon and snakes

But rather than an astonishing sequence of improved technology compared to the speed at which human culture began expanding and then forever morphing 50,000 years ago, “progress” was painfully slow.

Putting human evolution in context:

◯ 65,000,000 years ago, primates seemed to have survived a wave of mass extinctions which engulfed the dinosaurs and half the life forms on earth.
◯ 30,000,000 years ago the first apes appeared
◯ 6-10 million years ago the first hominids
◯ “as far as the archeological record is concerned, the outstanding feature of the vast stretch of time from the first hominids to early homo erectus is that nothing much seems to have happened.”
◯ 100,000 years ago neanderthal is burying its dead…

I suppose we can say “there is progress”,  but there is nothing which remotely prepares us for the changes which begin some 40,000 years ago. And then the pace of human cultural evolution quickened. Looking at developments in hominid culture over the long haul, it was more than a “quickened pace” – it was nothing less of a cultural explosion, the evidence for which includes the Sulawesi discoveries, only the most recent in what has been a flood of discoveries.

What are some of the other features of “the cultural explosion package” of which cave art is only one factor, if the most intriguing factor? They are well documented and discussed in what I consider to be the masterpiece explanation of this cultural awakening, John Pfeiffer’s The Creative Explosion, now 35 years old, but still, in my view, unmatched. Pfeiffer noted:

◯ Things were happening faster than before
◯ Neanderthal vanished without a trace
◯ New lifestyles appear with the new species – changes taking place across the board in practically all areas of human endeavor
◯ The cromagnons made more tools and more kinds of tools than Neanderthals using a wider variety of raw materials more efficiently, exploiting a wider range of plants and animals.
◯ Humans seemed to have been coming together in larger groups, perhaps for somewhat longer periods, a hint of the full scale settlements to come – and communicating with each other over longer distances.
◯ There are signs of a crumbling of age-old traditions.

All this marks the emergence of a new species – and more significantly of a new brand of evolution. Cave art was an integral part of it. For better or worse this moment marks what has been called “the great release” – the breaking away from other animals which is our uniqueness and in the long run, perhaps our downfall. It came during the Upper Paleolithic” somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago, in evolutionary terms, very recently, probably no more than around 1000 generations ago.

This is a period of dramatic – and probably traumatic  – change. Human culture in this period had become so technologically efficient that it would – the world over – destroy its own food supply and was forced to constantly diversify its food sources either through migration or finding ways to increase its store of edible food sources – or both. The quest for food during this period of creative explosion was central. There was something a desperate need to find new food sources, new ways of processing food. and then of transmitting that knowledge from one generation to the next. This period is not only that of a “creative explosion” but also of an information explosion. 

How is it that painting figures – both photographic and symbolic – in the walls of caves, something that there is no evidence of humans or our ancesters having previously done – was such an integral part of this creative and information explosions that humanity was engaged in and highly dependent upon? 

Tune in and we will discuss this next time.

Selicate sculpted Tuc d’Audoubert – clay bison in S. France

One Comment leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    January 21, 2021 1:25 pm

    After so many years of evolution, humans have invented nuclear weapons and these will not be the most destructive invention as humans continue to evolve. It is possible that we have evolved into a dead-end. We are destroying the natural world, we elect psychopaths’ and give them the key to the suitcase. And it all started with a spear thrower. Imagine an evolution that ended in the Garden of Eden instead of the mushroom cloud. It didn’t have to be this way. I suppose the worst mistake in history was made by Eve, she ate the apple instead of the snake.

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