A cave painting discovered in Indonesia on the island of Sulawesi could be the oldest known artwork in the world, according to new research.

The artwork was daubed on the limestone cave walls 43,900 years ago, say scientists at Australia’s Griffith University in an academic paper published in the journal Nature.

Using cutting-edge dating technology the researchers analysed the 4.5m (13ft) painting which depicts hunters wielding spears or ropes while pursuing large mammals.

The cave
Image: Researchers fear the limestone caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are crumbling

The hunters are depicted as part-human, part-animal figures known as “therianthropes” which the researchers say may be “the oldest evidence for our ability to imagine the existence of supernatural beings”.

Griffith University explained that the therianthropes are “portrayed in the act of killing or capturing six fleeing mammals, two Sulawesi warty pigs and four dwarf buffaloes known as anoa.

“The latter are small but fierce bovids that still inhabit the island’s dwindling forests,” the researchers said.

The island of Sulawesi is home to at least 242 caves which feature ancient imagery, and more sites are being discovered every year.

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However the limestone is crumbling and the researchers fear that crucial parts of human history may be lost.

The scene in the newly dated painting could be the oldest evidence for Palaeolithic art being used to communicate a narrative, according to the researchers.

This could be significant as the ability to invent fictional stories could have been “the last and most crucial stage in the evolutionary history of human language and the development of modern-like patterns of cognition” they added.

The cave
Image: There are at least 242 paintings in caves on Sulawesi
Caves in Sulawesi
Image: The high cave in which the ancient painting was found was only accessible via ladder

Griffith University’s associate professor Adam Brumm said: “Therianthropes occur in the folklore or narrative fiction of almost every modern society and they are perceived as gods, spirits, or ancestral beings in many religions worldwide.

“Sulawesi is now home to the oldest image of this kind – earlier even than the ‘Lion-man’ from Germany, a figurine of a lion-headed human, which, at 40,000 years old, was until now the oldest depiction of a therianthrope.

“Early Indonesians were creating art that may have expressed spiritual thinking about the special bond between humans and animals long before the first art was made in Europe, where it has often been assumed the roots of modern religious culture can be traced.”