Oldest known cave paintings show modern human thoughts – as a story.

Scientific American marvels over paintings found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi – 44,000-year-old images of fantastic beast-men that bear signs of modern human ways of understanding the world:

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 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.

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.

You can read more details (and slightly more dry prose) here, in Nature.