World news: Indonesia, Germany, Mexico

Earliest known rock art ever found in Indonesia; skulls relating to sacrificial ceremony found in Tenochtitlan; German enigma machine discovered in Bay of Gelting.

Earliest evidence of Indonesian art?

Recent dating of an ochre drawing of a warty pig, found in 2017 at the back of limestone cave in the Maros-Pangkep region of the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, has revealed that it is at least 45,500 years old, making it the earliest known rock art from this region and perhaps the earliest known example of representational art in the world. (While earlier examples of rock art have been identified, they are more geometric in nature and do not appear to depict living creatures).

photo: Maxime Aubert
Photo: Maxime Aubert

The pig was dated using uranium-series dating, which involves establishing the age of mineral deposits that have formed over the top of the painting, thus providing a minimum date for the artwork (see ‘Science Notes’, CA 339). The same cave panel contained the partial images of two further pigs, as well as hand stencils, suggesting that this painting was part of a larger scene. Previously, the earliest known artwork from the region was dated to at least 43,900 years ago.

Skulls and sacrifice in Tenochtitlan

A ceremonial skull rack, known as a tzompantli, has been discovered during recent excavations in Mexico City, the site of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. It is believed to be the Huei Tzompantli, which is mentioned in historical records and was the central skull rack in the city, located near the main temple of the city, Templo Mayor, in the 14th and 15th centuries, during the reign of Ahuizotl (r. 1486-1502).

The temple was largely destroyed by Spanish conquistadors, but part of the structure was discovered in 2015 and a further excavation last year revealed a new section of the building along with this tzompantli. The rack measured 4.7m in diameter and contained 119 skulls, including men, women, and children. Isotope analysis indicates that they were not local, and they may have been captives from external conflicts who were then sacrificed.

Underwater Enigma

A German Enigma machine, used during the Second World War to send encrypted messages, was recently discovered by divers in the Bay of Gelting, part of the Baltic Sea just off the coast of north-east Germany near the Danish border.

After it was determined that the find was not simply an old typewriter, the object was removed from its underwater bed and is currently undergoing a thorough restoration at the state archaeological museum in Schleswig. It has been noted that this particular machine has four rotors, a type of Enigma that only began to be used by German U-boats from 1942.