sign in a cave in Laos

8 June 2008

Cave of Hands, Sulawesi (Star)

The cave of hands

Story & Pictures by LIZ PRICE

THE STAR Lifestyle
Saturday June 5, 2004

The cave wall was covered in hand prints, smeared in red. It looked like some grisly murder had taken place here, with the victim having placed his bloodied hands against the wall. At least that’s what I imagined. In reality the hand prints are art. Ancient art.

The scene was quite peaceful: a cave featuring prehistoric art, surrounded by padi fields and a beautiful pool. This cave was 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 5,000 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 babi rusa, an endemic wild deer-like pig with long legs and tusks that curve upwards like horns.

We stayed 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. They are the Muslims who settled in the area. I learnt that the name Leang Leang means “many caves” in the Makassarese dialect.

The double decker bus is a rare sight in South-East Asia. This one was snapped in Maros.

The village 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 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 hadn’t seen one before in South-East Asia. The bus ride to Maros took about 40 minutes. Here we had to negotiate the fare with a bemo driver, and once we were all happy, he took us to Taman Prasejarah Leang Leang (Leang Leang Prehistory Park).

It’s quite a distance from the main road, through a village and across farmland.

It was a scenic route with karst rocks sticking out of the alluvial plain with its dry padi fields, and limestone hills and caves in the background.

We arrived at the park and found that it closes on Monday – and, yes, it was a Monday. The guide came out and in my very broken Malay/Bahasa Indonesia, I told him we had come all the way from England to visit these special caves. He decided to open it up for us. Phew, we were lucky.

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, 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 artefacts were found, as well as a human skeleton. The cave walls have the hand paintings, as well as those of the babi rusa. 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 babi rusa. There were a couple more chambers in the cave and a vertical rift passage. There were good views down over the valley, and I could imagine prehistoric people living here in such beautiful surroundings.

Leang Leang dates back to the prehistoric era of hunting and gathering. The people were from the Toalan culture, which existed from 5,000-1,000 B.C.

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 babi rusa paintings suggest evidence of pig domestication.

These two Maros caves were probably used as shelters. A kitchen was found in one of the caves, along with 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.

For a while these Neolithic paintings were the oldest known in 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 5,000 years old. Other caves in Sulawesi show evidence of human occupation from 31,000 years ago. The oldest rock paintings in Malaysia are only about 2,000 years old.

It is not really known what the purpose or significance of these paintings were to the people who made them. Or even how they reached some of the upper passages. It is likely that the more inaccessible caves were used as burial sites, as in the case in the Tanah 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 were no more caves open to the public. Or maybe we had just exhausted our welcome.

So we paid the guide and thanked him for his kindness, and set off back to our hotel in Ujung Pandang.

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