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SYFY WIRE Paleontology

Fantastical 44,000-year-old cave painting proves we've believed in cryptids at least that long

By Elizabeth Rayne
Sulawesi cave art

Anyone into sci-fi, fantasy, or horror has seen a slew of cryptids across comics, books, TV shows, and movies, but humans have been into these sorts of creatures for much longer than Fantastic Beasts or Supernatural have been around.

Belief in entities that are human-animal hybrids or ones that can transform themselves into something not of this Earth dates back tens of thousands of years. A Griffith University-led team of paleontologists has now discovered that a 43,900-year-old cave painting on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is not just the oldest example of rock art and figurative art in general, but also the oldest evidence of humans imagining supernatural beings. Specifically therianthropes — creatures that are part human and part animal.

Sulawesi cave art

“The images of therianthropes at [rock art site] Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 may also represent the earliest evidence for our capacity to conceive of things that do not exist in the natural world, a basic concept that underpins modern religion,” said Maxime Aubert, an associate professor at Griffith University who co-led a study recently published in Nature.

What appeared to be just more rock graffiti from an ancient civilization turned into a groundbreaking find when the team got much closer. Anthropologists used to think that early artists just started breaking into more sophisticated depictions of people and animals around 35,000 years ago, and human art didn’t advance to interactive scenes until about 21,000 years ago. That is now a myth that has been debunked by this hunting scene (below), which not only shows a surprising amount of detail for the time period, but also therianthropes.

Never before have such clear images of therianthropes been found in Paleolithic cave art (or anywhere else). The piece was dated by measuring the radioactive decay of uranium in mineral deposits on the image, which shows hunters with humanoid bodies and animal heads and other features chasing down Sulawesi warty pigs and fierce dwarf buffaloes, aka anoas (pictured). Until now, the oldest known depiction of a therianthrope was Germany’s 40,000-year-old Lion Man sculpture.

“All of the major components of a highly advanced artistic culture were present in Sulawesi by 44,000 years ago, including figurative art, scenes, and therianthropes,” said Griffith University professor Maxime Aubert, the other co-lead of the study.

Therianthropes were important to the mythology and religious practices of ancient peoples. For example, grave goods have revealed that the Scythians of ancient Russia and Ukraine would deck out their horses with elaborate antler headpieces to transmogrify them into deer, a revered animal in the Scythian culture. Just like the Scythians, it appears that ancient Indonesians “may have expressed spiritual thinking about the special bond between humans and animals,” as Brumm added. Many religions that have survived until now still worship therianthropic deities.

Think about all that next time you see a faun or a centaur galloping across your screen.

(via Griffith University)

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