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May/June 2015

5

best “cave-galleries” with archeologists Muhammad Ramli and

Mubarak Andi Pampang.

The art in these caves has been known to locals and archeologists

at least since the 1950s, and probably much earlier for those who

live close by and whose ancestors had been scouring these hills for

game and medicinal herbs for centuries. Until recently, it had been

assumed by world archeologists that the Maros-Pangkep images

couldn’t be more than 10,000 years old due to the rapid erosion

rates common to tropical karst (limestone) environments. But for

some time, Indonesian archeologists

based in Makassar had strong hunches

that many of the images were much

older, that they were created not long

after modern humans arrived in the

region 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.

“We made an assumption from the

excavation evidence and compared

it with evidence such as bones, shell

deposits and

red ochre,” says

Budianto Hakim,

who is a researcher

at Makassar’s

Archeological

Research Office.

“We based it on

carbon dating and

got 30,000 years

ago.” (In fact, at

one cave site we

visit later, that

evidence goes back

35,000 years.) But,

as Hakim realizes,

you can’t directly

infer that paintings

will be of the same

age as adjacent

artifacts: The artists may well have been at work millennia

after—or before—someone left the artifacts.

Dating the world’s earliest art, particularly anything figurative,

is critical to the study of the origins of religion and art; that in

turn is critical to understanding the origins of creativity in the

human mind. Even the simplest figurative art demonstrates a

cognitive ability to produce representational images, as opposed

to forms like cross-hatched lines engraved on a shell such as have

been found in Java, Indonesia, dated to 500,000 years ago.

Just where and when figurative art begins has long intrigued

archeologists. Modern humans, or

Homo sapiens

, evolved in

eastern Africa some 200,000 years ago, and the current best

evidence shows that some of them migrated

out of Africa both through the Levant and

across the lower Arabian Peninsula. From

there, some traveled west into Europe and

others traveled east, spreading across south

and Southeast Asia to reach Australia fairly

rapidly, by about 50,000 years ago. Crucial

to studies of the origins of figurative art is

where along these great treks it appeared.

Theories formulated in the late 19th

century pointed to art’s origin in south-

western Europe and a gradual diffusion of

stylistic ideas eastward. This was based on where the oldest art

known to date had been found. As a result, a Eurocentric view

of the origins of figurative art dominated the field for decades:

The oldest non-figurative cave painting in the world so far is

40,800 years old, a red disk from El Castillo in northern Spain;

the earliest known figurative rock art is a painted rhinoceros in

France’s famous Chauvet Cave, which has been carbon-dated to

the range of 35,300 to 38,827 years ago. At the far eastern end of

early human diffusion, the oldest rock art in Australia has been

established at around

30,000 years old,

although pigment

and used hematite

(a deep red iron ore)

“crayons” have been

found there in depos-

its dated to some-

where in the broad

range of 36,000 to

74,000 years ago.

All this points to some frustrat-

ing aspects shared by these studies.

Accurate dating is critical, but

rock art is notoriously difficult to

date. Although it was used to date the Chauvet Cave rhinoceros

image, the carbon-14 method is generally not useful, and it is

often controversial, as it depends on the meticulous separation

Opposite,

left:

Members of the four-day

expedition that took

AramcoWorld

to

10 of the Maros-Pangkep caves descend

a bamboo ladder out of the interior of

the cave named Bulu Sipong.

Above:

Archeologists Muhammad Ramli and

Mubarak Andi Pampang, who work for

the Centre for the Preservation of the

Cultural Heritage of Makassar, capital of

South Sulawesi, arrive at the shelter

that serves as a base camp for research

in the Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park

where a sign,

top,

points to a cave:

Leang

means “hole” or “cave.”

Pampang,

left,

says the Centre

welcomes new discoveries of rock

art that add to the more than 90

now surveyed. “We give full credit

to the discoverer, honoring them

each year and often providing them

jobs,” he explains. Ramli,

above,

has

been studying the caves and the art

since the 1980s.