What appeared to be just more rock graffiti from an ancient civilization turned into a groundbreaking find when the team got much closer. These images were therianthropes - part-human, part-animal figures - which occur in the stories of almost every modern society and are thought of as gods, spirits or ancestral beings in many religions worldwide.
What's peculiar is that these figures have both human and animal features.
Image showing the figures of the cave art from 44,000 years ago. For example, grave goods have revealed that the Scythians of ancient Russian Federation and Ukraine would deck out their horses with elaborate antler headpieces to transmogrify them into deer, a revered animal in the Scythian culture.
Credit: A. Brumm (figure design and production); A.A. Oktaviana (digital tracings); R. Sardi (photographs of rock art); C.C. Lee (Sus celebensis photograph). "Everything is there by 44,000 years ago", Griffith University's archaeologist, Professor Maxime Aubert explains.
"Therianthropes occur in the folklore or narrative fiction of nearly every modern society and they are perceived as gods, spirits, or ancestral beings in many religions worldwide", said study co-author Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Australia's Griffith University. "Who knows what other awesome cave art is out there at some site that can change our understanding of human evolution?"
The scene is inside the Maros-Pangkep limestone cave system on the island's southwestern end, which has been a hot spot for archaeologists since the 1950s. An additional threat may come from the growing interest people will have in the region. The scientific study published on Wednesday that brought these discoveries to the fore reveals that the pertinent Sulawesi cave art has been dated earlier than earlier than previously recorded cave drawings, using "uranium-series analysis of overlying speleothems".
This 4.5-metre-wide panel takes us back to a time tens and thousands years before the rise of the Majapahit empire.
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In 2018 scientists discovered a vast gallery of cave art in Indonesia, on the island of Borneo, that portrayed cow-like creatures, dated back 40,000 years and was considered to be the oldest rock art to date.
For now, exactly what the scene is meant to represent is still up for debate, but it could also be the oldest depiction of a hunting scene to date. That is now a myth that has been debunked by this hunting scene (below), which not only shows a surprising amount of detail for the time period, but also therianthropes.
These works had been known for years by locals on the island of Sulawesi - but Brumm adds that "it was assumed they couldn't be that old".
Despite these unresolved mysteries, it is now abundantly clear that these humans were storytellers whose abstract paintings shed light into the origins of human cognition and spirituality.
"These images appeared on my iPhone", said Mr Brumm.
"Who knows what other amazingly old images that could change our understanding of human evolution are out there now in undiscovered caves in Indonesia", Brumm says, "peeling away as we speak".
"It also hints at high order cognitive processes such as language and elaborate artwork emerging fairly recently in evolution", Miyagawa said. By 35,000 years ago, this simple art form had supposedly evolved into a more sophisticated artistic culture characterized by sublime figurative paintings of horses and other animals. That's a problem plaguing a number of caves in Sulawesi. At this point, they are the only link to this early culture that dreamed up fantastic beings and visualised the thrill of the chase - two activities that still preoccupy humans today.