Archaeologists recently discovered the world’s oldest cave paintings of animals, in an isolated cave in Indonesia. This has challenged the way scientists think about our history, and provided evidence for people in Asia tens of thousands of years ago! Let’s learn about this topic, while studying English vocabulary!

(If you can’t see the podcast player CLICK HERE to listen!!)


Archaeologist (n) – someone who studies the buildings, graves, tools, and other objects of people who lived in the past

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of an Anglo-Saxon settlement

Remote (adj) – far away in distance; a long way from any towns or cities

They live in a remote mountain village, miles from the nearest shop

Characteristic (n) – a typical or noticeable quality of someone or something

A big nose is a characteristic in my family

Capacity (n) – someone’s ability to do a particular thing 

She has a great capacity for hard work

To date (v) – to say how long something has existed or when it was made

Archaeologists have been unable to date these fossils

Artefact (n) – an object that is made by a person, such as a tool or decoration, especially one that is of historical interest

The museum’s collection includes artefacts dating back to prehistoric times

Reasonable (adj) – based on or using good judgement and therefore fair and practical

If you tell him what happened, I’m sure he’ll understand – he’s a reasonable man!

Sophisticated (adj) – intelligent or made in a complicated way and therefore able to do complicated tasks

I think a more sophisticated approach is needed to solve this problem

Pigment (n) – a substance that gives something a particular colour when it is added to it

Pigment is mixed into oil, glue, egg, etc. to make different types of paint 

For almost a year now, I have not enjoyed reading the news. I just find it all quite depressing. Unless there is a major incident or breaking story, the majority of top news articles on every site I use are always about the pandemic. I find myself skipping the negative stories and searching for something more positive or fascinating! For example, I found an article called “Archaeologists find world’s oldest animal cave painting” on the BBC and it really stood out to me! So i want to tell you all about this article!

A group of archaeologists in Indonesia have discovered the world’s oldest known animal cave painting. On the wall of the Leang Tedongnge cave in a remote valley on the island of Sulawesi, the researchers found an image of a wild pig. Incredibly, they believe that the pig was drawn around 45,500 years ago. That is so long ago it is difficult to really comprehend. It is far older than any other known cave paintings. We are not sure how the human’s at that time communicated, thought or lived. Animals including the giant woolly mammoth (a relative of the modern elephant) were still roaming the earth. It would still be another 40,000 years before we started using metal! In fact, we only started farming about 12,000 years ago! This cave painting was drawn 45,000 years ago. 

It was painted in dark red and is actually the size of a real warty pig, which is the type of wild pig living on the island of Sulawesi. This surprised me, because I was expecting the cave paintings to be much smaller and less detailed. It measures 136cm by 54cm (53in by 21in) and shows a pig with horn-like facial warts that are a characteristic of the adult males of the pig. In addition, there are two hand prints above the back of the pig, which also appears to be facing two other pigs that are only partially preserved.

According to Maxime Aubert, the co-author of the report, “The people who made it were fully modern, they were just like us, they had all of the capacity and the tools to do any painting that they liked.” Mr Aubert is an expert in dating ancient artefacts, including paintings, and estimated the age of the cave drawings by analysing a substance that had formed on top of the image! His tests demonstrated that it was at least 45,500 years old. Moreover, it could be much older than that, because they tested the substance on top of it – the painting could have been there for years already. 

These cave paintings provide the earliest evidence of human settlement of the region. The indonesian island of Sulawesi is in a key location. It’s the largest island in a group of important islands known as Wallacea! This group of islands sit on a dividing line, either side of which you find very different animals and plants. The area must have also been a stepping stone for modern humans as they made their way to Australia. We know that humans were present in Australia around 65,000 years ago, so it’s reasonable to assume they were also on Sulawesi at the same time or even earlier. Therefore, there is possibly more art out there to be found, either on Sulawesi or a neighbouring island, that’s older than 45,000 years old.

Before the paintings in Indonesia were tested, the oldest known images of animals were all in Europe. The spectacular lions and rhinos of Chauvet Cave, in southeastern France, are commonly thought to be around 30,000 to 32,000 years old, and mammoth-ivory figurines found in Germany are from roughly the same time. These kinds of pictures or sculptures don’t appear elsewhere until thousands of years afterward. This led scientists to assume that humans in Europe were the first to develop sophisticated thinking! Once Europeans started painting, their skills could have spread around the world. 

However, the images in Sulawesi challenge this theory! In fact, the paintings in Indonesia were painted before humans were even permanently settled in Europe. They may be the world’s oldest art depicting a figure, but it is not the oldest human-produced art. At the moment, that title belongs to a tiny set of lines sketched onto a stone found in South Africa, which according to scientists are approximately 73,000 years old! Archaeologists in South Africa have also found that the pigment ocher was used in caves 164,000 years ago. They have also discovered deliberately pierced shells with marks suggesting they were strung like jewelry, as well as chunks of ocher, one engraved with a zigzag design. 

Final Thought

The discovery of these ancient paintings in Indonesia is fascinating. A few years ago, I read the famous book Sapiens which is all about the development and history of humans! I often think about how our ancestors lived. And there are so many unanswered questions. How did language develop? How did we spread around the earth? What were our early societies like? Cave paintings are maybe the only clue we have to how our ancient predecessors acted and thought. We have bones that tell us what they looked like, and artefacts that tell us where they lived and what they ate. But thinking is a much more creative process… art can offer an amazing insight into their lives!

Comprehension Questions

Q. What animal was painted in the cave?

Q. When did humans arrive in Australia?

Q. Where was the oldest human produced art discovered?

Liked it? Take a second to support Thinking in English on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

Leave a Reply