The recent dating of cave art near Makassar on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi to a staggering 44,000 years ago will change the way in which the prehistory of art is conceived. For years, the Eurocentric view, built upon the exemplars of Lascaux, Altamira and La Marche, had been yielding ground to older finds in Australia, South Africa and Indonesia. Now, Sulawesi has trumped the rest of the world. The finds there are not new, technically, since they were known locally for a long time. And one of the motifs, the human hand outlined in ochre — saying, very powerfully, “I was here!” — is a common sign in prehistoric art the world over. What’s new is the antiquity of the artwork, arrived at by dating the mineral patina covering it.
But the most striking drawing also tells a story — a hunting scene in which the human figures are not completely human, but have animal attributes. Are we seeing the first evidence of totemism and shamanism, in which humans identify with an animal and try to assume its powers? This must remain a matter of speculation, but nevertheless, this single panel comic strip from 44 millennia ago is clearly evidence that the human imagination is immeasurably old. Abstract and symbolic thinking was at least as important for the development of sapiens as the opposable thumb that held the paintbrush. It made religion, philosophy, cooperation and culture possible, and paved the way from magic and mystery to Boolean algebra and Cubism.
The finds in Indonesia reveal not only the prehistory of art, but also that of the human mind. They suggest that millennia before our specie created the civilisation, the cities and the technology it identifies with, it had imagination. And it could tell a story.
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