Rock Art Depicts Oldest Story Ever Told

Rock art discovered by archeologists in Indonesia depicts the oldest story they have ever uncovered. Find out more about cave paintings and storytelling.

I’ve enjoyed camping in Ontario’s provincial parks ever since I was a baby in the 60s. One of the largest parks in Ontario is Lake Superior Provincial Park in the spectacularly scenic Algoma country. The park has many world-class attractions, but the one I will always remember is the Agawa Rock Pictograph Site.

Sacred to the Anishnabe First Nations (Ojibwe), their ancestors decorated the Agawa Rock with 35 pictographs dating from as far back as the 17th century. The rock art records dreams, visions and events. In other words, it tells stories. The site isn’t the most accessible attraction to view. 

To see them clearly, visitors have to scramble out over a rocky shelf that is awash with Lake Superior’s waves while hanging onto a rope for support. It’s all worth it, in the end, to catch a glimpse of the world as the Anishnabe ancestors saw it before contact with European settlers.


Agawa Rock is among the most visited indigenous archeological sites in Canada. It’s not a contest, but its 300-year-old rock paintings are much more recent than the famous cave paintings at Lascaux, France. Discovered in 1940, and declared a UN World Heritage Site in 1979, these images date back 17,000 years. There are over 600 rock paintings depicting nature scenes, with typical flora and fauna of the era.

Archeologists thought that the Lascaux site contained the oldest examples of narrative artwork in the world. They have found older rock art in European cave sites such as Chauvet in France and El Castillo in Spain. These are 35,000 years old, but they don’t seem to tell stories. They are more unadorned portraits of animals and abstract symbols.

Now we can turn the clock back even further. This week, scientists from Griffith University in Australia reported in the journal Nature that they have dated a storytelling cave painting in Indonesia and discovered that it’s 44,000 years old.


The cave paintings on the island of Sulawesi portray what seems to be a hunting scene. Human-like figures chase various local animals in these reddish-brown images. Team member Adam Brumm told Nature, “I’ve never seen anything like this before. I mean, we’ve seen hundreds of rock art sites in this region, but we’ve never seen anything like a hunting scene.” 

Based on the team’s findings, these are not only the oldest storytelling pictures in the world. They’re also the most ancient examples of figurative art. That is, they’re the earliest pictures we know about that portray objects or living things in the world around the artist and not just symbols or shapes.

However, there is something even more interesting about these paintings. They depict imaginary creatures that are part human but also have tails and snouts like local animals. Mythologists call these images therianthropes. Finding such old examples suggests that humans were able to imagine things they had never seen in the real world much earlier than previously known.


There are other examples of this. Archeologists found an ivory carving in Germany of a half-human half-lion figure. There’s also a picture of a human with the head of a bird at Lascaux. Even so, neither of these specimens is as old as the rock art in Indonesia.

Brumm continued, “We don’t know what it means, but it seems to be about hunting, and it seems to maybe have mythological or supernatural connotations.” It seems that we have been able to use our imaginations from the very beginning of our species.

The team, led by Professor Maxime Aubert, determined the age of the rock art using a technique called popcorn dating. Readers may have noticed the small white rocky formations that build up on boulders and cave walls. These consist of calcite. There are a few of these formations on the edges of the Sulawesi rock art.


Calcite contains some radioactive uranium that slowly turns into thorium at a constant rate. Researchers can use this process to date mineral samples. One of the bits of calcite was roughly 43,900 years old, and two others formed at least 40,900 years ago.

What’s more, these paintings may not be the last word on the topic. Archeologists are making more of these discoveries as the search continues. Archeologist Bruno David told Nature, “It’s probably only a matter of time before narrative paintings of this, and much older age are found in Africa.” When it comes to human origins, all roads seem to lead back to that continent.

Professor David’s book Cave Art offers more information on ancient rock paintings and is available from Amazon.

Whether we are talking about Northern Ontario, Indonesia or Africa, the discovery of ancient rock art is a story in itself. The moral of the fable is that humans tell each other stories. That’s the way we learn things. We need our stories to find meaning in the world and our place in it.


Science has taken away our old stories that depend on myths and superstitions for explanations. But it’s making a fair exchange. Soon we’ll have our own, new, all-encompassing account. It will be a story that anyone can confirm to be accurate and that we all will share.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:
Earliest Hunting Scene in Prehistoric Art
Cave Art
Hunter-Gatherer Culture and Storytellers
Friendly Faces Drove Human Evolution
Beauty and the Brain
Music is Universal After All, Harvard Study Finds
The Many Ways the Constellations Reveal Themselves


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