My favourite painting: Turtle Bunbury

Turtle Bunbury, historian and television presenter, chooses one of the planet's most ancient artworks.

Turtle Bunbury on Sulawesi Warty Pig by an unknown artist

‘I’ve always been a little obsessed with prehistory and I find rock art especially grounding. This little piggy is part of a remarkable collection found in a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

‘It’s a Sulawesi pig, warts and all, painted with vivid red ochre and is quite possibly the earliest known artwork produced by human hand. In fact, the artist even added human hands to the scene. So many millennia ago is a massive timespan to get your head around, but I take much encouragement from the notion that, even then, mankind was seeking to make sense of its surroundings through art.’

Turtle Bunbury is a historian and television pre-senter. His book Ireland’s Forgotten Past: A History of the Overlooked & Disremembered is out now.

John McEwen comments on Sulawesi Warty Pig

The 2017 discovery of this image was momentous — the world’s oldest known painting. This, and two other red-pigment warty pigs, complete with facial nubs and crests of stiff hair, were found daubed on the limestone wall of a cave on Sulawesi island by archaeologists from Griffith University and the Indonesian National Archaeological Centre.

The geochronologist Dr Renaud Joannes-Boyau says that the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens dates from 300,000 years ago in Morocco, ‘then after that, we have remains that are 195,000 to 200,000 years old. Then we have very few remains until about 70,000 years ago, when they got out of Africa. So what were we doing for all those thousands of years?’

Sulawesi Warty Pig lifts the curtain slightly. It had previously been thought that the oldest cave art, dating from about 40,000 years ago, was in Europe. Sulawesi Warty Pig is at least 45,500 years old, but probably much older. Prof Adam Brumm says ‘with further work we expect to push back the age of rock art and other human habitation in this region of Sulawesi and nearby islands maybe to 65,000 years ago, or even earlier’. This is because it is known that Homo sapiens had reached as far as Australia at about that time.

Current uranium series dating gives an age for the youngest or topmost part of a calcite layer. Layers beneath can be much older. Before technology transformed dating, it was thought humidity made it unlikely that such Indonesian cave drawings were more than 10,000 years old.

So what did the warty pig mean? ‘What does breakfast mean?’ was Henry Moore’s response to a similar enquiry about his art.


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