A research article posted in the Jan. 13 issue of Science Advances reports that the oldest known example of representational art has been identified on the wall of a cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia – and it’s the portrait of a pig.
Or at least three pigs, drawn in dark shades of red ochre made from powdered rocks. One has survived entirely, while two others have deteriorated significantly. The pigs appear to be interacting in some way.
And they’re no small effort: The best-preserved pig is about four-and-a-half feet wide and 21 inches tall (see a nice video of the discovery here).
Researchers from Griffiths University in Queensland, Australia, report the images appear to depict a type of warty pig; males of the species have large wart-like protuberances on their heads. Descendants of the warty pigs still live on Sulawesi, a roughly pinwheel-shaped island with a tropical climate.
Although cave art from European sites such as the Lascaux and Chauvet caves in France is well known, it is even more abundant in the caves of Sulawesi – and older.
The colorful paintings in Lascaux are usually dated to about 17,000 years ago, while the detailed charcoal drawings from Chauvet may date to as early as 37,000 years before our time.
The pigs painted near the back of Sulawesi’s Leang Tedongnge cave, however, appear to have been painted an astounding 45,500 years ago.
And how does one arrive at a date for cave art? Karst caves are formed over millions of years when thick layers of limestone or other soluble minerals become hollowed out as water seeps through and gradually dissolves the minerals. This can lead to spectacular formations of stalagmites and stalactites, familiar to those who have visited underground cave attractions, usually in mountainous areas.
As water seeps across the face of the cave through the years, calcite encrustations build up on the walls. Researchers took a small sample from one of the pig’s hind feet, sliced it thinly, and analyzed the rate of Uranium decay in the layers that had accreted above the layer of paint.
The results suggest a minimum age of 45,500 years for the Leang Tedongnge paintings, making it a few hundred years older than a hunting scene found at the nearby Leang Bulu’ Sipong cave.
There’s little question that the presence of pigs in art has something to do with the pleasure of pigs in stomachs. While folks like me delight in the opening of any new barbecue restaurant and binge on televised barbecue competitions, it is evident that the practice has been around for a long time.
Pulled pork barbecue doesn’t just date back to plantation times or prehistoric times, but to Pleistocene times.
Reading about the ancient pig art reminded me that taxonomically, they belong to the Suidae family. Horses are equines and cows are bovines: pigs are from the suid family.
My great-grandmother didn’t know that her pigs were suids, but that didn’t stop her from yelling “Sooey!” when she poured slop into their trough. I come from a long line of pork eaters; I just didn’t realize quite how long it was.
I’ve always felt sorry for Jewish friends who can’t go hog wild over bacon for breakfast, carnitas for lunch, or pork chops for dinner.
Various theories have been given for why the ancient Hebrews were forbidden from eating pork (Leviticus 11:7, Deuteronomy 14:8). Some writers suppose it’s because pigs were considered to be nasty or disease-ridden, while others argue that pigs are hard to herd and don’t fit a nomadic lifestyle.
I’ve read suggestions that pigs were unfavored because they don’t produce side products like milk or wool. Yet another theory is that the pork taboo was designed to draw a sharp distinction between the Israelites and the despised Philistines, who left a lot of pig bones in their wake.
My personal position is that if the purpose of kosher rules was to set the Hebrews apart and show dedication to God, a juicy haunch of roast pork would be one of the hardest things to give up.
Many people choose not to eat pork for their own reasons, but I tend to side with the late Roger Miller, who won a Tony Award for writing the music and lyrics for Big River back in 1985.
A light-hearted number features Tom Sawyer singing porcine praises that conclude with this verse:
The way I see it, it looks like this
Either you ain’t or either you is
A true-blue lover of the swine, folks:
How ’bout a hand for the hog?
I’ll eat to that.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.