sign in a cave in Laos

27 January 2019

Hand stencils, rock art, Anthony Gormley BBC2

An interesting documentary on BBC2 by British sculptor Anthony Gormley. Gormley is probably best known for his "Angel of the North" statue. In the documentary, he was investigating the age of art, having originally thought that Europe had the oldest art - from the cave paintings in France and Spain.

This is taken from the BBC2 webpage -
"Why do humans make art? When did we begin to make our mark on the world? And where? In this film, Britain's most celebrated sculptor Antony Gormley is setting out on a journey to see for himself the very beginnings of art.

Once we believed that art began with the cave paintings of Ice Age Europe, tens of thousands of years ago. But now, extraordinary new discoveries around the world are overturning that idea. Antony is going to travel across the globe, and thousands of years back in time, to piece together a new story of how art began. He discovers beautiful, haunting and surprising works of art, deep inside caves across France, Spain and Indonesia, and in Australian rock shelters. He finds images created by hunter-gatherers that surprise him with their tenderness, and affinity with the natural world. He discovers the secrets behind the techniques used by our ancestors to create these paintings. And he meets experts making discoveries that are turning the clock back on when art first began.

Finally Antony asks what these images from millennia ago can tell us - about who we are. As he says, 'If we can look closely at the art of our ancestors, perhaps we will be able to reconnect with something vital that we have lost."

I was particularly interested in the hand stencils, these are found on 3 continents. Firstly Gormley showed those in  Pech Merle Cave in France. Photos taken from the Pech Merle webpage -

Gormley spoke to French archaeologist Michel Lorblanchet, who has suggested that the application of the paint for some of the paintings was probably by means of a delicate spitting technique. He says the 200 black spots had the charcoal (?) applied this way, as well as the 6 hand stencils. Lorblanchet then demonstrated making his own hand stencil on a rock outside, by chewing charcoal and gently spitting onto the rock. It took about 45 minutes. The paintings are actually deep in the cave, the ancient artists would have used light from fire, and then used charcoal from the fire for their paintings.

Gormley talks about how Neanderthals are usually considered to have inferior mind and didn't produce cave art. He went to El Castillo Cave in Spain, and talked to Professor Alistair Pike, who has worked on dating techniques. There are 40 hand stencils in this cave. Some of these red stencils are now covered with calcite, dated at 37,000 years. 40,800 for the red dots. The calcite arrived after the stencils were made. These are some of the oldest of European paintings and most have been done by Neanderthals. Pike also worked at Maltraviso Cave in west Spain, where there are many hand stencils, and found calcite deposits on the stencils dating to older than 66,000 years old. This is 25,000 years before humans arrived in Spain, so must have been done by Neanderthals.

This shows art was done earlier than first thought. And was done by Neanderthals, not humans.

Gormley then went to Sulawesi, in Indonesia. Cave art has been found here, and was done at the same time as the paintings in Europe, but the people presumably had no contact. He met Maxine Aubert and sees more hand stencils. Unfortunately many of the paintings have disappeared over the last 30 years as parts of the rock surface have fallen off, probably due to pollution.

I saw some of these paintings in 1994. My blog, Cave of Hands. The babi rusa was probably painted with a brush.

They go on to Leang Timpuseng, with a babi rusa painting, dated at minimum 35k years old, as well as a hand stencil dated at 40 k, minimum . The babi rusa would be the world's oldest figurative art. There is now an archaeological dig in the cave.

So the Indonesian and Europe art is about the same age, done on opposite sides of the world. Is there similar art to be found in say Africa, India etc?

Next, Gormley went to the Kimberley in Australia. This has a huge variety of rock art, animals, plants and humans, but hasn't been properly dated yet. There are no paintings of humans in Europe, but there are in the Kimberley, showing humans "celebrating, and alive". There are also hand stencils.

As Gormley says, these separated communities of modern man left signs of being, a human need to express something. Whereas the practice of painting in Europe ended about 10 k years ago, in the Kimberley rock art is still a part of spiritual life. There is still a living connection.


BBC2 Antony Gormley: How Art Began,  2019, 73 minutes, official website.

6 December 2018

vale Daniel Gebauer and Dr Dieter Kock

Sadly, 2 Germans who were "involved" with Malaysian caves and bats have died in the past month.

The first I heard about was Herbert Daniel Gebauer, who died on 19 Nov 2018. Although Daniel caved mostly in the Indian subcontinent, and primarily in Meghalaya, he came to Malaysia in 1993. During his stay in Ipoh, we surveyed Gua Layang Layang as well as Gua Kelawar at Sg Siput Utara. Daniel also spent a few days surveying in Gua Tempurung and produced the first detailed survey of the cave.

Daniel came back one year later in Jan 1994 and this photo was taken in the river at Gunung Mesah, Daniel is on the left, and Liew Chin Chow on the right -

Daniel's papers relating to Malaysian caves :
GEBAUER H.D. 1994 Die Gua Tempurung im fengcong von Ipoh. Der Abseiler Jan 13, 37-43.
GEBAUER H.D. 1993 Die Gua Tempurung. Eine tunnelhohle in Perak. Mitteilungen des Verbandes der deutschen Hohlen und Karstforcher (Munchen) 39(4)84-92.
GEBAUER H.D. & PRICE Liz 1995 Gua Tempurung. JMBRAS 68(1)29-52.
PRICE Liz & GEBAUER H.Daniel 1996 Gua Tempurung, Perak. CSS Jnl, Jan, 23(5)105- 108. Reprinted  Oct, 24(1)14-16.

The second person I heard about was Dr Dieter Kock, who died on 28 Nov. Dr Kock worked in the mammals section of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt. For many years I sent him bat skulls that I collected in Malaysian and other caves and he kindly identified them for me. We co-authored a paper, KOCK, D; ALTMANN, J & PRICE, L (2000) A fruit bat new to West Malaysia: Rousettus leschenaultii (Desmarest 1820) in Batu Caves. MNJ, 54(1)63-67.
In 2005 I took Dr Kock into Dark Cave at Batu Caves -

On that trip, we found a dead mother bat with a living baby still attached by the umbilical cord -

Thank you to both these men for their contribution to Malaysian caves and fauna!

9 November 2018

Oldest rock art of mammal in Kalimantan

In Nov 2018 it was revealed that the oldest animal drawing has been found in a cave in East Kalimantan. In Lubang Jeriji Saléh there are 3 cow-like creatures drawn on the walls and dated to 40,000. This makes them older than the babirusa drawings from Maros in Sulawesi, which are about 35,000 years old.

The drawings in Kalimantan are thought to be of banteng. Banteng, also known as tembadau, (Bos javanicus) is a species of wild cattle found in Southeast Asia. I have never seen one in the wild. They have been domesticated in places.

Also in the cave are many hand prints, dated at 52,000 – 40,000 years. See article in Nat Geog Nov 2018, and Nature.

5 October 2018

Gua Naga Mas must be preserved

The Star on 1 Oct had an article "Rare tiger fossil in cave at Gopeng, Perak, must be preserved". This is something I have been saying for years, but nothing has been done. And I am mentioned in the article about this!

I was also interested to see that a painting of a tiger has now been placed on the wall near the fossil. The fossil is being worshipped in the temple at the base of the hill. See my 2015 blog on the
Erawan Shrine Cave.

See full article with the photos on the Star www.

After this, several more articles appeared in the press. See more on my cave site.

Metro News
1 Oct 2018
by Allison Lai

THE PERAK state government is keen to preserve Gua Naga Mas in Gopeng because of a unique complete fossil of a mammal embedded in the limestone cave wall.

State Tourism, Arts and Culture Committee chairman Tan Kar Hing said researchers believe the fossil is unique.

“When a group of researchers made the discovery, they compiled a report with officials, confirming it was a carnivore fossil.

“The thing is, during my recent visit to the site and also meetings with several agencies, we did not have much scientific report on it.

For now, Tan noted that the cave, located in a Siamese temple, was still open to the public .

“The fossil was actually being worshipped in the temple. A tiger painting can be seen next to it with joss sticks and prayer items.

“There was even words in Chinese labelling it a ‘tiger fossil’,” he said, adding that it was important to engage with the local community on the state’s plans to preserve the site and prevent its deterioration.

Stressing that it was important to get more details on the fossil, Tan said he had also received positive feedback from researchers, after he shared about his visit to the site on his Facebook page.

“So far I have sought help from the Museums Department for archaeological assistance.

“I will also call for a meeting in the near future involving all relevant departments, agencies, and researchers to discuss what we can do with this fossil,” he added.

In was reported in 2009 that an animal fossil found in Gua Naga Mas was that of a tiger, during a visit to the site by Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) members in 1992.

The opinion that the fossil is a tiger came from expert conservationist Dr Geoffrey Davison, and further confirmed by Dr Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, the fifth Earl of Cranbrook with a team of researchers from Universiti Malaysia (UM).

Lord Cranbrook, as he is popularly known, was a senior lecturer in zoology between 1961 and 1970 at UM and the author of several books on wildlife in South East Asia.

Vertebrate palaeontologist Lim Tze Tshen, who was part of the UM research team looking at the fossil with Lord Cranbrook back in 2009, said that he had never seen a fossil as complete as the one in Gua Naga Mas.

“I have been doing fossil hunting and research in peninsular Malaysia since 2004 and I have never seen a fossil as complete as this, except for archaeological human skeletons.

“The Naga Mas fossil is about 80% complete. It is very rare that such a complete carnivore fossil can be found in South-East Asia, and it is definitely the one and only in the country,” he said in an interview.

Lim, who is a former research associate with UM’s Museum of Zoology said that Dr Davison did a very detailed examination of the fossil and came to the conclusion that it was a tiger.

“Unfortunately, his conclusion did not reach a much wider audience, and much confusion arose even to this day with people claiming it was a bear, dog, leopard or serow.

“In 2009, a team of researchers together with the Earl of Cranbrook decided to re-investigate the fossil and we reassessed the preservation condition of the fossil,” he said, adding that their research confirmed Dr Davison’s identification that the fossil was indeed of a small-sized tiger.

Lim, who is now doing his post-graduate study in the University of Cambridge and will be taking a research fellowship in Sarawak Museum in the subject of zoo archaeology, also noted that certain sections of the fossil showed signs of deterioration.

“I got in touch with Dr Davison following the confirmation of the research and we compared pictures of the fossil taken in 1992 and 2009.

“I do not know exactly what caused such deterioration, it could be natural, artificial, or both.

“In fact, a veteran caving expert in Malaysia, Liz Price, raised serious and valid concerns about the sad condition of the fossil and the surrounding areas several years ago,” he said.

“In a sense, Malaysia is unique – we have living tigers in the peninsular; the majestic animals are featured in our national coat of arms; and now we have a complete fossil of a tiger in Gopeng. But are we doing enough to protect it?

“Who knows that one day the hill site together with the fossil might be gone owing to the mining activities, without the knowledge of how important the fossil is to Malaysia and the people, scientifically, educationally, and, perhaps, culturally?” he added.

When asked, Lim said that it was important for the state government to find out which government agencies were responsible for the protection of the fossil and site, as well as the legal protection status of the fossil now.

“It is also necessary to organise an on site reinvestigation of the current status of the fossil, with inputs from all relevant stakeholders, including the temple manager, nature lovers and scientists,” he added.

Meanwhile, Perak’s Malaysian Nature Society chairman Ooi Beng Yean has called for the cave to be gazetted following the fossil discovery by MNS’ Perak caving group more than 20 years ago.

“It is the only place in Perak where this complete animal fossil has been found.

“With its rarity and uniqueness, it should be protected for historical preservation and also controlled eco-tourism to prevent further deterioration in the future,” he said.

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22 September 2018

Visiting Lenggong caves - update 2018

In 2015 I found most of the archaeological caves were fenced off. Apparently you had to get the key from the museum. Gua Kajang -

Needless to say visitors have been complaining about this lack of access, especially as the caves are part of the World Heritage Site.

In 2016 the BBC travel website featured an article by Marco Ferrarese who managed to get permission to visit by emailing the Lenggong gallery's director.

The latest access requirements, 2018, are that one has to submit a letter to the Department Director, stating the number of visitors and preferred date.

The Department of Heritage, at Kota Tampan, says they are "in phase one of construction and maintenance. The archaeological sites are being repaired to reach world-class standards."

However due to financial reasons, only some sites are being chosen for repair.

4 August 2018

Gua Tambun closed again

Gua Tambun is closed again. Once again, the reason is lack of maintenance. The site was closed in July 2018.

Ever since the rock art at Gua Tambun was discovered in 1959, the site has not been looked after. Over the years the Perak state government and / or Ipoh town council have made attempts, which are more verbal than practical.

I've written about the lack of protection in 2009. The steps are often overgrown -

Ipoh City Council is supposed to be doing the latest clean up, let's see what  happens............

See more on SEAArch 17 July 2018.

9 June 2018

Cave paintings found at Ao Luek, Krabi

The Nation on 7 June 2018 reported that "More than 60 ancient paintings, thought to be around 3,000-5,000 years old, have been found at the Khao Pru Tee Mae cliff in Mount Chong Lom, Ao Luek, Krabi. A team of archaeologists from the Fine Arts Department last month found more than 30 paintings of monkeys, humans, elephants and geometric forms along the 300-metre-high cliff.".

Then in the first week of June they found 30 more paintings. These paintings represent adults and children, marine life, fishermen and elephants.

As the area hasn't been fully surveyed, it is expected that more paintings will be found.

The cliffs and caves in the Krabi area are already known to archaeologists. The area is thought to have been inhabited by homo sapiens since around 35,000 years ago.

See photos of the paintings on thethaiger .

See my blog on the petroglyphs in Tham Phi Hua To near Ao Luek.