Dr. Brumm and his colleagues assume the painters were modern humans, “given the sophistication of this early representational artwork.” Moreover, the ancient paintings share characteristics with prehistoric art made by humans elsewhere in the world, including the presence of handprints and the use of the “twisted perspective,” in which animals are painted both in profile and frontal views.
Dr. Brumm says he believes it is only a matter of time before human remains of this age are found in archaeological digs in the region.
João Zilhão, an archaeologist at the University of Barcelona who was not involved in the study, disagrees with the team’s assumption that modern humans created the paintings. As the co-author of a 2018 study suggesting that Neanderthals left nonfigurative art on the walls of Spanish caves, he thinks another extinct human species may have created the images.
“An anatomically modern human is an anatomical definition,” he said. “It has nothing to do with cognition, intelligence or behavior.”
Dr. Zilhão added, “There is no evidence about the anatomy of the people who did this stuff.”
While it is easy to focus on the claim that these are the oldest prehistoric images yet found from people, Margaret Conkey, a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, said that overshadows the “much broader implications” of the discovery.
What stood out about the study from her perspective was its “important contribution to understanding how humans might be staying in connection with each other” in prehistoric Sulawesi, and “how they are creating social worlds through material and visual manifestations.”
While the new study uses the term “oldest,” Dr. Brumm and his colleagues expect to find images in Sulawesi with even more advanced ages.