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Photograph: Ratno Sardi/Griffith University

If for any reason you find yourself on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, climb up a particular dusty, meandering track on the edge of a steep hillside. Scramble around the rocky outcrops close to the top, negotiate a bamboo ladder, and step into a cave system that was once underwater as part of an ancient coral reef. Welcome to the world’s oldest art gallery.

Look above your head. In the rough, uneven surface of limestone rock, splintered with age and masked by mineral deposits [affectionately known as ‘popcorn’ by geologists], you will see the faint lines of a painting created at least 40,000 years ago. To date, this is the oldest known painting of figurative art anywhere in the world. There are many paintings in this cave, and many more still in similar locations nearby, all thought to be around a similar age.

Some depict simple human outlines, carrying what appear to be hunting tools, others show distinct animal forms, and others still show the silhouetted shapes of human hands, presumably belonging to the artists themselves. Their relative simplicity takes away none of the thrill of knowing they are the earliest examples of creative art made by humans.

Whatever the reason they were painted - to glorify a hunt, to express spiritual or early religious sensibilities, or made just for fun like an archaic graffiti – it’s compelling they were not made out of necessity but for the sake of creativity itself, using our imagination to tell a story.

These paintings are an extraordinary snapshot of our distant past, demonstrating that creativity and artistic expression have been part of what it means to be human for a lot longer than we previously realized. We humans have been making tools for around 2 million years, and since this in itself is an expression of creativity, perhaps the artistic expression that drives us to create art today is equally old.

We may never know exactly when our creative flame was lit, but the next time you start a new painting, sketch out ideas for that new bathroom, or even dream up a recipe for ‘omelet ice cream,’ remember – we’ve been doing this kind of thing a very long time.

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