Ancient cave carving depicts six-legged mantis-man

Researchers have discovered a unique petroglyph, depicting what appears to be a six-legged mantis-man, at the Teymareh rock art site in Iran.

Invertebrates are rarely found in rock carvings, so the archaeologists on the project recruited entomologists to help them determine what kinds of creatures might have inspired the motif. Researchers looked at several six-legged species that prehistoric artists might have come across in central Iran.

The motif measures just 5.5 inches in length, and though it was discovered in 2017, its small size and unusual shape made it difficult to identify. In addition to boasting six legs, the creature features large eyes and enlarged pincher-like forearms.

The entomologists on the study identified an extension on the creature’s head that matches local praying mantis species belonging to the genus Empusa.

Scientists estimate the rock art is between 4,000 and 40,000 years old.

“The petroglyph proves that praying mantids have been astounding and inspiring humans since prehistoric times,” researchers wrote in the Journal of Orthoptera.

The figure isn’t a perfect representation of a Empusa mantis, as the middle limbs feature loops as a hands. Researchers linked the carving with a common petroglyph motif known as “Squatter Man,” which has been found at rock art sites around the world. The motif features a person flanked by circles.

Some researchers suggest the circles represent the atmospheric plasma discharges created by auroras.

The discovery of the latest petroglyph reinforces the theory, based on previous discoveries of half-mantid, half-human figures, that the mantis was a symbol for the supernatural.

“An example includes several prehistoric pictographs in southern Africa representing ‘mantis people’ with half-mantid bodies,” researchers wrote in their paper. “These, and the Iranian mantid petroglyph, bear witness that in prehistory, almost as today, praying mantids were animals of mysticism and appreciation.”

Ancient cave art may depict the world’s oldest hunting scene

On the walls of a cave in southern Sulawesi, a humanoid figure about five inches wide hovers over the head of a warty pig, its arms connected to a long, spindly object. This figure, interpreted as a hunter in a 44,000-year-old mural, appears to have a stubby tail.


AN INDONESIAN SPELUNKER named Hamrullah was exploring the grounds of a concrete plant on the island of Sulawesi in 2017 when he spotted the unassuming hole in the limestone high above his head. Without a second thought, he shimmied up the rock and tucked himself into the mouth of a small cave, where he clambered through the tunnel’s cool, musty air. He hit the back wall and saw a mural spread out across eight feet of flaking rock, so he pulled out his phone and began snapping pictures.

The painting, described today in the journal Nature, depicts two pigs and four small-bodied relatives of water buffalo, as well as what appear to be eight humanoid figures that are two to four inches tall. Some of the human figures are holding long, spindly objects pointed toward the animals that might be ropes or spears.

The rock art panel extends some eight feet across the back wall of Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4, one of the many caves in Sulawesi’s Maros-Pangkep region.

Whether the art depicts a hunt or some other event, it’s likely the oldest known story told through pictures, the researchers say. The mural dates back at least 44,000 years, which makes it about twice as old as most similar cave-art scenes in Europe, such as a 19,000-year-old French mural of a bison charging a bird-headed man. The discovery adds to a growing body of ancient art known in Southeast Asia that changes some long-standing ideas about when and where humans started showing our defining cognitive traits.

“When you do an archaeological excavation, you usually find what people left behind, their trash. But when you look at rock art, it’s not rubbish—it seems like a message, we can feel a connection to it,” says lead study author Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Australia’s Griffith University.

“Now we’re starting to date it, not just in Europe but in Southeast Asia, and we see that it completely changes the picture of our human journey.”

Finding the time

The mural is the latest major artistic work found in the caves of Sulawesi’s Maros-Pangkep region. Millions of years ago, underground rivers had cut through the limestone here to form a maze of caverns, many of which contain hand stencils and other paintings made by the humans who called the island home tens of thousands of years ago.

Since the 1950s, scholars have documented more than 240 cave art sites on Sulawesi, but for decades, these paintings were assumed to be no older than about 12,000 years. That started to change in 2014, when a team including Aubert and Brumm began finding cave paintings in Indonesia that were at least 40,000 years old, making them at least as old as Europe’s famed cave-art sites, if not older.

“Europe was once thought of as a ‘finishing school’ for humanity, because France in particular was the subject of intense research early on … so for a long time the European rock art record really set the tone for what we expected to see,” University of Victoria archaeologist April Nowell, who wasn’t involved with the research, says in an email. “We have long known this view of Europe as a ‘finishing school’ is no longer tenable, and the richness of the finds from Australia and Indonesia continue to underscore this point.”

The mural is globally significant, says Peter Veth, a University of Western Australia archaeologist who reviewed drafts of the study: “As with the early dates of people voyaging across the sea to Australia and engaging in highly complex art, here we have [Southeast] Asian Indigenes showing human-animal relations before sapiens even got to Europe.”

How do researchers tell the age of a cave painting? One method provides an indirect estimate by revealing when minerals started growing over the finished art. These minerals naturally include trace amounts of radioactive uranium, which decays into thorium at a predictable pace. The older the deposit, the more thorium it’ll have relative to uranium.

For the newfound mural, Aubert and Brumm’s team sampled deposits that grew over parts of the painting and found that the minerals started forming between 35,100 and 43,900 years ago. Since it’s possible that the mural was made even earlier, the researchers are treating these dates as minimums. And because the team thinks that the mural was done in one fell swoop, they are using the oldest date—43,900 years—as the whole mural’s minimum age.

Aubert is confident these dates will hold. For one, the team sampled minerals that clearly formed over the painting’s pigment layer and so were assuredly younger than the painting. The samples don’t seem to have leached uranium over time, which nixes a possible source of error. It’s also clear that Sulawesi’s ancient residents had developed artistic chops; a nearby excavation led by Brumm found 30,000-year-old “crayons” and pieces of jewelry.

Elisabeth Culley, an archaeologist at Arizona State University who specializes in cave art, agrees that the Sulawesi painting is at least as old as the paintings in France’s Chauvet Cave, which date to between 30,000 and 32,000 years ago. She also agrees that the artwork represents a proper scene.

“I don’t think the interpretation is controversial,” she says. “The figures are oriented toward each other, [and] it’s not simply dynamic—there does seem to be some motion.”

Going abstract

But the new mural has more contentious elements for scientists to ponder. The humanoid figures bear unusual features, including one with a stubby tail and another with a birdlike beak. As part of their paper, Aubert’s team claims that the figures might be the oldest human-animal hybrids ever found in a work of art. The oldest accepted one, a lion-headed male figurine, was carved from mammoth ivory in what’s now Germany 39,000 to 40,000 years ago.

If the painting’s figures do in fact blend the human and the non-human, they suggest that the artist behind them could think abstractly and creatively. It’s even possible that the figures hint at an early spirituality or express shamanic beliefs.

“Maybe early people at that time, to them, they saw themselves as an indivisible part of the animal world,” says study coauthor Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University. “This special bond between humans and animals was so strong that culturally and philosophically, they might have seen themselves as part-animal, part-human, for all we know.”

Nowell agrees that the artwork might depict an abstract hunting scene: “Given that some of the human-like figures appear to have a tail or beak suggests that it is not a straightforward hunting scene, that there is some mythological quality to it,” she says. Culley also agrees that the artwork is meant to be abstract, since the painting’s humanoid figures are unrealistically tiny. But precisely because it’s abstract, Culley says, the painting could support many interpretations beyond a hunting scene. Perhaps the putative spears are shamanistic “power lines” meant to show energy moving from one object to another.

Regardless of the specifics, Culley says that the scene’s true importance lies in the artist’s attempt at abstraction—a trait that also pops up in France more than 30,000 years ago.

“There’s huge variation in [the two] cultures, there’s a lot of space dividing these traditions … but they’re also very consistent,” she says. “That, to me, is the real take-home: They’re contemporaneous with a very, very similar tradition, which must have some shared origin.”

Protecting the past

Now that researchers have described the painting, they’re racing to find and document more. Hamrullah, who is a study coauthor, and the team’s other Indonesian members routinely find more as-yet unexplored caves as they survey the region. The team is also trying to chart a future for this mural’s cave site. It’s unclear precisely why, but the newfound art has recently started flaking off the cave wall at an accelerating pace.

The bustle of activity around the site may play a role. While the local government and the concrete plant have agreed to protect the cave, nearby mining explosions still rattle the landscape.

“We don’t know how long it’s still going to be there,” Aubert says.

It’s possible that protections for the area will strengthen. In an email, Hamrullah expressed hope that the cave system could be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. And even though its future is uncertain, Brumm marvels at what the cave has already told us about our shared past.

“You do have this opportunity to sit in this cave where you’re only the fourth person, or fifth or sixth, to have seen this in tens of thousands of years, as far as we’re aware—and then to be privy to this knowledge, this understanding, to know how ancient this is,” he says. “It’s very hard to describe that feeling. But it’s certainly what keeps you going.”

World’s oldest art discovered in Indonesian cave

Artwork in an Indonesian cave has been found to date back at least 40,000 years, making it the oldest sign yet of human creative art — likely pre-dating art from European caves.

The findings undermine a Eurocentric view of the origins of human creativity and could prompt a ‘gold rush’ to find even older art on the route of human migration from Africa to the east.

The analysis hints at “just what a wealth of undiscovered information there is in Asia”, says Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, UK, who in 2013 identified what had been considered the world’s oldest cave art, in Europe2, and had no involvement in the current project. “This paper will likely prompt a hunt.”

The Indonesian images, discovered in a limestone cave on the island of Sulawesi in the 1950s, had previously been thought to date back only 10,000 years. Anything older would, it was assumed, have deteriorated.

Even after a technology that could test that assumption, uranium-thorium dating, became available, no one thought to apply it to the Indonesian cave — until now. Though the paint itself cannot be dated, uranium-thorium dating can estimate the age of the bumpy layers of calcium carbonate (known as ‘cave popcorn’) that formed on the surface of the paintings. As mineral layers are deposited, they draw in uranium. Because uranium decays into thorium at a known rate, the ratio of uranium to thorium isotopes in a sample indicates how old it is.

The researchers dated 12 stencils of human hands and two images of large animals. Because they sampled the top layer of calcium carbonate, the uranium dating technique gave them a minimum age for each sample.

They found that the oldest stencil was at least 39,900 years old — 2,000 years older than the minimum age of the oldest European hand stencil. An image of a babirusa, or ‘pig-deer’, resembling an aubergine with stick-like legs jutting from each end, was estimated to be 35,400 years old — around the same age as the earliest large animal pictures in European caves.

The hand stencils look similar to those found in Europe. But the animal pictures, in addition to reflecting local animals rather than mammoths as in Europe, are stylistically different. The Indonesian images “look ‘line-y’, almost like brush strokes”, says Pike, whereas early European images “look dabbed, almost like finger paint”.

“It allows us to move away from the view that Europe was special,” says Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, who led the team. “There was some idea that early Europeans were more aware of themselves and their surroundings. Now we can say that’s not true.”

Researchers posit two theories for the evolution of such artwork — either it arose independently in Indonesia, or early humans leaving Africa already had the capacity to make art, and carried it to multiple areas.

Pike thinks that researchers should seek evidence of art along the southern migration route. “India is the most obvious place to look,” he says. “I expect we’ll start getting a lot more photos [of images covered in calcium carbonate] from along that corridor from people who want to date them. This may move the field along very rapidly.” Southeast Asia will also be raked over, he predicts. There are hundreds more caves in that region of Sulawesi alone, and Aubert has also started looking in Borneo.

The discovery weakens a much-debated theory that Neanderthals, who were present in Europe until around 41,000 years ago, might have been responsible for the cave art there. “There were no Neanderthals in Sulawesi,” says Pike. But the hand stencils and choice of subject are very similar to the Indonesian figures, he adds.

Aubert hopes that the discovery might draw attention to the need to protect the caves, many of which have been damaged by mining and other industrial activity. Many of the paintings are flaking off, he says. He hopes that the site might finally, after years of candidacy, be designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organization, which would accelerate conservation efforts.