Imagining things that do not exist in nature and weaving them into narratives are unique signatures of the human psyche. These abilities are abundantly evident in the earliest example of narrative art, which was recently discovered in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. In these newly reported images, one or more Pleistocene-epoch humans on this Southeast Asian island depicted a scene containing several figures that seem to be people. But mysteriously, some of these “humans” have snouts, another has a tail and still another has a bird’s beak. The human-animal hybrids must have lived only in the imagination of their creators. Far from a literal copy of the natural world, they offer a window into the creative minds of the prehistoric artists. The images’ inventive mixing of forms reveals a surprisingly modern reasoning and a sophisticated narrative imagination. At 44,000 years of age, they are the oldest known cave paintings made by modern humans

The arrangement of the figures and the presence of strange humanlike forms suggests that the artists were conveying a story. But if these paintings represent a narrative, what does it mean? The individuals who resemble people carry what appear to be weapons or, in some cases, ropes. They surround a group of animals, which includes pigs and a species of dwarf buffalo, suggesting that they are hunting those creatures. Could this scene be a literal depiction of a hunt, with humans wearing animal skins or masks for camouflage? Alternatively, could it be a record of a hunting strategy? Is it possible that the hunters wore animal costumes in order to emulate the strengths of those creatures? The authors of the study describing the find dismiss the notion that it is a literal representation of hunters in camouflage because as large humans they would not be able to conceal themselves as little birds. Instead the researchers write that most likely the paintings “may not pertain to human experiences in the real world” but rather express a spiritual or shamanistic narrative. The fusion of human and animal forms suggests a sense of indissoluble affinity with the animal world. Regardless, the meaning the team found in these paintings is not so much about any specific story conveyed by the painting but the fact that there was an attempt to convey such a story—and the evidence that the artwork provides about how fundamental such narratives are to the cognitive behavior of the human species.

Narrative is a core feature of human cognition. Autobiographical narrative, which ties together the events and experiences of life, is fundamental into an individual’s a sense of self; it represents the “self as storyteller.” But narrative, as literature and drama scholar Brian Boyd has written, “allows us [to go] beyond the limits of our lives” to benefit from the experience of others, whether real or imagined. This human ability confers knowledge of an experience without entailing the risk associated with it, thereby offering our species an enormous selective advantage. But even this advantage is modest, compared with the ability to go beyond mere mimicry of what is at hand and negotiate an imaginary universe that is untethered to the limitations of the natural world.

Sulawesi lies east of Borneo and northwest of Australia, and it is a particularly rich site for ancient art. More than 240 caves with wall paintings have been identified on the island. The researchers who announced the recent discovery previously described a 35,000-year-old cave painting of a babirusa, or pig deer, there. They also reported some examples of portable art in Sulawesi dating back 20,000 years, including engravings of an anoa (a wild ox sometimes called a midget buffalo) and of a sunburst pattern on plaquettes about the size of large coins. The cave containing the earliest ancient art they have now described is called Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4. First discovered in 2017, it features a 15-foot-wide wall with monochromatic red ochre drawings. Mineral deposits from water seeping into the cave that overlie several of the figures were taken for radiometric dating of the images. While many prehistoric cave paintings have been previously unearthed in Europe, the new discoveries in Southeast Asia demonstrate that artistic narrative is a universal human endeavor.

Prehistoric humans were such enthusiastic artists that they were able to support an extensive long-distance Stone Age trade in natural pigments as far back as 300,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of cave art is a 64,000-year-old hand stencil made by a Neandertal in the Maltravieso Cave in Cáceres, Spain. In Europe, there are also many examples of more elaborate representational cave art with literal depictions of animals and humans. Such representations of animals characterize the 35,000- to 30,000-year-old Chauvet Cave paintings in southern France, those of a similar age that were found in the Coliboaia Cave in Romania and the famous 20,000-year-old Lascaux Cave images in southwestern France Lascaux has been described as the “Sistine Chapel of prehistory” because of its breathtaking beauty. It differs from the Coliboaia and Chauvet sites because, in addition to literal representations, it has an early example of more enigmatic narrative art: the portrayal of a bird-headed figure known as the “Bird Man of Lascaux.” This image is similar to the narrative art of Sulawesi. But by comparison, the latter predates the paintings in Lascaux by 24,000 years.

Like the Bird Man of Lascaux, the part-human, part-animal figures depicted in the Sulawesi cave are known as therianthropes. There are famous examples of these hybrids in the Cave of the Trois-Frères in France, near its border with Spain. The 15,000-year-old pictures include a drawing of “the Sorcerer,” a humanlike figure with the characteristics of a variety of animals or perhaps a human wearing a headdress with antlers and animal skins. Such images are associated with metamorphosis and transformation. They have found their way into mythology in familiar characters such as Daphne, Io and Ganymede, as well as in common folklore characters such as the werewolf. Meanwhile bird-headed human figures are found in cultural artifacts from ancient civilizations as far-flung as the Aztec in Mexico and those in Mesopotamia.

Modern human thought allows us to categorize the world around us and to combine its features into novel inventions. When those features involve animals, new illusory creatures emerge in the imagination that do not exist in nature. Those characters become the source of narratives, where they behave in accordance with their newly merged attributes. Thus, to take an example from history, the Egyptian deity Horus was depicted as a falcon-headed man. Taking after the falcon’s native habitat, he was regarded as god of the sky. The Sulawesi paintings point to an attempt at this type of symbolic reasoning.

These evocative images, hidden until now in an Indonesian cave, are a combinatorial exploration of an imaginary world, mixing a human form with the head of a bird or the tail of a beast. The Sulawesi artists who composed the images left us the earliest example of the innovative combination of features and their symbolic meanings that became the heart of human culture. The painting show modern thought at work in a prehistoric cave.