Sulawesi cave of hands

Sunday, January 20, 2008

THE wall was covered with hand prints surrounded by a red blood-like colour. It looked like some gristly murder had taken place, the victim having placed his bloodied hands against the wall as some macabre event took place. Luckily this scene only took place in my imagination. In reality the hand prints are art. Ancient art.

The real scene is quite peaceful. A cave featuring prehistoric art, surrounded by rice paddies. This cave is part of the Leang Leang prehistory park in the Maros karst in southwest Sulawesi, Indonesia. The Leang Leang caves are noted for their rock paintings, thought to date back 5000 years.

The paintings are stencils of human hands, made by placing the hand up against the wall and then blowing a mixture of red ochre and water around them, leaving a negative image on the rock. The effect is quite dramatic. Is this prehistoric Inkjet? I can imagine the artists having great fun as they created their handiwork — no pun intended!

Some hands face left, others face right. Apart from hands, the only other paintings are of a pig deer. This is the babirusa, an endemic wild deer-like pig, with long legs and tusks that curve upwards like horns.

We were staying in the capital of Sulawesi, Ujung Pandang. For centuries Sulawesi was a major transit point between the spice islands of Maluku and the trading ports of Java and the Malay peninsula. Many Makassarese live in Ujung Pandang, these are the Muslims who settled in the area.

I learnt that the name Leang Leang means "many caves" in the Makassarese dialect. The village of Leang Leang lies at the southern end of the limestone massif which houses all these caves and rock shelters. Although there are other rock paintings in Indonesia, these are some of the most easily accessible.

From our hotel, we had a half hour walk to reach the bemo station, where we got on a bus to Maros. I was very surprised to see a double decker bus driving past, as I don't think I'd ever seen one before in southeast Asia. The bus ride to Maros took about 40 minutes. Here we had to negotiate a fare with a bemo driver, and once we were all happy he took us to Taman Prasejarah Leang Leang.

There are two caves of archaeological significance in the Leang Leang Park, the Pettae Cave and the Pettakere Cave. The Pettae cave was first studied in 1950. During the archaeological excavations, several stone artifacts were found, such as flakes, blades, arrow heads, neolithic axes etc., as well as animal bones. In the same year the cave paintings were also found.

The Pettakere Cave was only studied in 1973, by a British archaeologist. Again cultural artifacts were found, as well as a human skeleton. The cave walls have hand paintings, as well as the babirusa. In 1979 archaeologists from South Sulawesi continued the excavations.

We climbed up the steps to Gua Pettae, which is basically just a chamber, containing the handprints. We then walked around to Gua Pettakere, and had to climb a steel ladder up 20m of cliff face to a higher entrance. Here we saw about half a dozen hand stencils and a babirusa. There were a couple more chambers to the cave and a vertical rift passage. There were good views down over the valley and I could imagine prehistoric man living here in such beautiful surroundings.

Leang Leang dates back to the prehistoric culture of hunting and gathering. The people were from the Toalan culture, which existed from 5000-1000 BC. In Malaysia at the same time, people were also practising a hunting gathering culture, especially in the Lenggong Valley in northern Perak. This was part of the Holocene period which was marked by the development of human culture. These Neolithic assemblages show Man was using tools and the babirusa paintings suggest evidence of pig domestication.

These two Maros caves were probably used as shelters by these early people. A kitchen midden was found in one of the caves. Associated with this were shells, animal bones and skins, all leftovers of these prehistoric people's meals. Freshwater shells in particular, seem to have formed an important part of their diet.

These Neolithic paintings were the oldest known Indonesia, until French cavers found more ancient rock drawings in Kalimantan in the 1990s. Leang Leang is quite young in archaeological terms, being only some 5000 years old, as other caves in Sulawesi show evidence of human occupation from 31,000 years ago. However the oldest rock paintings in Malaysia are only about 2000 years old.

The significance of these paintings to that early society is not known. We are not even sure how the artists reached some of the high level passages. It is likely that the more inaccessible caves were used as burial sites, as in the case of the famous Tana Toraja area, some 200km to the north.

We asked the guide if there were other caves in the area, and he said no. The surrounding hills are obviously riddled with caves, but maybe the guide meant there are no more caves open to the public. Or maybe we had just exhausted our welcome. We knew there were caves at Bantimurung, and would be going there the next day, so we paid the guide and thanked him for his kindness, and set off back to our hotel in Ujung Pandang.

The Brunei Times