South Sulawesi, Indonesia (CNN)Even in the shadows of the Leang-Leang caves, the colors are surprisingly fresh: rich deep maroons, lightened by limestone.
With its bulging torso and spindly legs, the creature on the curving wall looks distorted.
But it’s not.
The painting depicts a babirusa, or pig-deer, a species unique to Sulawesi, Indonesia.
And the culture that created it made some of the oldest art on earth.
The Maros-Pangkep karst region winds through more than 400 square kilometers of South Sulawesi.
Its tall towers, jagged cliffs and angular pinnacles are riddled with ancient caves.
And, at least 39,900 years ago, human beings lived in these caves, and left their mark behind them.
Sometimes, they made paint, sucked it into their mouths and sprayed it around their hands, leaving ghostly stencils — some child-size, some as large as a concert pianist’s, a few with missing fingers.
Other times they painted animals, typically pig-deer and wild pigs.
And they left their art in the entrance of the caves, in brightly lit spaces where, most likely, everyone could see them.
“The prehistoric caves are very important in the history of the cultural development of mankind, not only for the people who live in South Sulawesi but also for all humanity,” says Iwan Sumantri, an archeologist at Hasanuddin University in nearby Makassar.
That’s because creating art is one of the defining elements that make us human.
Until recently, many experts believed that art originated in Europe, around 35,000 years ago, in a mysterious flowering of creativity that would produce the celebrated paintings at Chauvet, France.
“The hand painting in Timpuseng, near Maros, has a minimum age of 39,900 years,” says Sumantri.
That makes it the oldest known hand stencil on earth.
A faded babirusa painting, also in Timpuseng, is at least 35,400 years old, placing it among the world’s oldest figurative art.