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of limestone caves in the Indonesian province of South Sulawesi,

a little over an hour’s drive north of its capital Makassar, a

region where some of the world’s oldest cave paintings have

recently taken on new importance. One in particular—a red-

hued hand stencil made by spraying wet pigment over a hand

laid flat on the cave wall—was recently confirmed as the oldest

known hand stencil image anywhere in the world: It was painted

at least 39,900 years ago. That date has placed this region of

South Sulawesi, called Maros-Pangkep, on the emerging world

map tracing the origins and evolution of human cognizance

and creative expression. It’s a date that challenges long-held

theories that this kind of art originated in southwestern Europe

and spread eastward through south and Southeast Asia into

Australia along early modern-human migration routes. As old as

the European paintings 13,000 kilometers away, it shows for the

first time that humans were producing advanced art forms along

the entire breadth of the routes—from west to east—at similar

times in prehistory.

We have come to Maros-Pangkep to talk to the Indonesian

archeologists who have spent careers studying these caves,

and to see for ourselves the art that’s behind this latest expan-

sion—if not revolution—in thinking about early human history.

It’s February, the rainy season, but fortunately, the skies have

turned blue for the four days we have to explore 10 of the area’s


Previous spread:

Archeologists and guides explore Leang Jarie

(“Hand Cave”), one of several recently discovered homes to some

of the world’s oldest hand stencil-paintings.

For years, Indonesian

archeologists harbored

strong hunches that some

images in the caves dated

back toward the arrival of

modern humans 40,000

to 50,000 years ago.