A 44,000-year-old mural is now the oldest example of humans telling stories with pictures. Take a look at the epic hunt it shows.

A panorama view of the hunting scene found on the walls of a cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

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A panorama view of the hunting scene found on the walls of a cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
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Adam Brumm, Ratno Sardi, and Adhi Agus Oktaviana
  • Archaeologists discovered a 44,000-year-old mural on the wall of a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
  • The art shows human-animal hybrids hunting pigs and water buffalo.
  • Researchers think the mural is the oldest example of storytelling through pictures in the archaeological record.
  • Photos reveal what the cave paintings look like.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In the Indonesian jungle on the island of Sulawesi, archaeologist and spelunker Pak Hamrullah spotted a gaping hole high above the ground in a wall of limestone two years ago.

He skittered up the rock and poked his head inside.

Further exploration revealed that the hole led to a cave, now known as Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4. It had sat hidden and untouched for almost 50,000 years, sheltering rock art painted by ancient human ancestors.

On a 14-foot-long section of the cave wall, a hunting scene is splashed in dark red ochre pigment. Hamrullah could see that the pictures told a story: Eight tiny figures that seemed like human-animal hybrids were shown carrying weapons and chasing pigs and water buffalo.

According to a new study about the mural published in the journal Nature this week, further analysis has revealed that this hunting scene is the oldest of its kind, and the first ever picture human “storybook.”

“This elaborate rock art scene, dating back at least 44,000 years, is the earliest pictorial record of storytelling uncovered thus far,” Adam Brumm, a co-author of the study, told Business Insider.

Prior to this discovery, the oldest piece of art depicting human hunting was likely a painting on the wall of a French cave that showed a bison chase. It was painted between 19,000 years and 17,000 years ago.

Here’s a closer look at the Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 cave’s hunting mural.


When he first visited the cave, Hamrullah had to climb a nearby fig tree to reach the opening.

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The Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
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Ratno Sardi

He texted some photos of the mural to Brumm, who knew immediately that it was a unique find.


“We had never previously found distinct ‘scenes,'” in this area of Indonesia, Brumm said.

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A researcher sits on the limestone near the Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 cave’s entrance.
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Kim Newman

“Prehistoric cave art provides the most direct insight that we have into the earliest storytelling,” the study authors wrote. Narrative scenes like this show “sets of figures in spatial proximity to each other, and from which one can infer actions taking place among the figures.”

Researchers like Brumm had previously found cave art in parts of Sulawesi and the nearby island of Borneo that’s at least 40,000 years old. But none of those examples contained the type of narrative scene that Hamrullah discovered.


In part of the mural, a creature called an anoa, a relative of water buffalo, is surrounded by human-like figures carrying spears and possibly ropes.

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Part of the mural depicts six small human-animal hybrid figures surrounding a relative of water buffalo.
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Ratno Sardi

These human hunters were depicted with some augmentations, such as tails or bird-like beaks.


Human-animal hybrids like this are called “therianthropes.” Their presence in the mural indicates that the artist could think abstractly and creatively, according to the study.

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A human figure with bird-like head found on the Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 cave wall.
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Ratno Sardi

Therianthropes “incorporate elements of the human form in the representation of abstract beings,” Brumm said.


The ability to imagine beings that don’t exist is a cognitive milestone that forms the basis of religion and spirituality, Maxime Aubert, a co-author of the study, told Science.

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A human figure depicted in the Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 cave mural.
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Ratno Sardi

“We think of the ability for humans to make a story, a narrative scene, as one of the last steps of human cognition,” Maxime added.

Brumm said finding “all these things together in such an ancient image was a huge surprise.”

He added that the therianthropes in the Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 cave painting are the oldest known surviving images of figures who are part human and part animal.


Brumm and his team were able to date the mural by analyzing the age of mineral deposits on top of the painting.

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Archaeologists Maxime Aubert and Adam Brumm pose in the Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 cave.
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Kinez Riza

The scientists dated trace amounts of uranium, which decays at a known rate over time, in the rock to reveal that the painting is somewhere between 35,100 and 43,900 years old.


Before this finding, the oldest therianthrope ever found was an approximately 40,000-year-old carved figurine of a lion-headed man.

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The Löwenmensch figurine, or Lion-man, discovered in Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany.
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Thilo Parg

Archaeologists discovered the figurine in Germany five years ago.


The oldest cave art ever found before now is in Lascaux Cave, an archaeological site in southern France. That was previously considered to be the oldest example of storytelling.

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A grotto in Lascaux cave, a paleolithic site in southwestern France.
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Provided by UNESCO

Paintings in Lascaux cave are between 14,000 and 21,000 years old. One 17,000-year-old mural there, which shows a bison chasing a human-like figure, was previously thought to be the oldest hunting scene.


But the Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 mural is some 20,000 years older than the oldest known hunting scenes in European cave art.

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Researchers stare up into the Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 cave opening.
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Ratno Sardi

It’s not clear what species of human ancestor created the mural. By 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals had already started to go extinct, and there’s no evidence that they made it to Indonesia.

But Homo sapiens had by that point in history left Africa, spread into Europe, and started spreading into Asia.

“We don’t know which species made the art, but our working hypothesis is that it was modern humans – us,” Brumm said.


Archaeologist Bruno David, who was not involved in the study, told Nature that the painting’s age and narrative quality “could mean that early humans have arrived in southeast Asia with the capacity for symbolic representation and storytelling.”

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Therianthrope 8 figure (human figure with animal head)
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Ratno Sardi

David added that “it’s probably only a matter of time before narrative paintings of this, and much older age, are found in Africa.”