In December 2017, an Indonesian archaeologist discovered a cave painting on the island of Sulawesi that dates back at least 43,900 years — “the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world.”
In the story told in the scene, eight figures approach wild pigs and anoas (dwarf buffaloes native to Sulawesi). For whoever painted these figures, they represented much more than ordinary human hunters. One appears to have a large beak while another has an appendage resembling a tail. In the language of archaeology, these are therianthropes, or characters that embody a mix of human and animal characteristics.
The author of this article writes: “… The original inspiration for the painting, as well as its significance to the humans who created it, is likely to remain a mystery.”
… These humans were storytellers whose abstract [?] paintings shed light into the origins of human cognition and spirituality… “While we can’t know if this was the case… we can point to these enigmatic images of therianthropes as the world’s earliest known evidence for our ability to conceive of the existence of supernatural beings.” … A linguist [at MIT] suggested that the painting could have implications for understanding humanity’s “unique capacity to communicate using intricate language… It also hints at high order cognitive processes such as language and elaborate artwork emerging fairly recently in evolution,” [he said].
(Becky Ferreira, “Mythical Beings May Be Earliest Imaginative Cave Art by Humans,” NYTimes, 12-11-19)
Besides introducing me to the term “therianthrope” (werewolves are therianthropes!), the article suggests how archaeology itself is a science that treats mystery with projective storytelling and disciplined leaps of imagination.
(c) 2019 JMN