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8

AramcoWorld

abruptly from their green cover like giant loaves of bread 200 to

300 meters high. These are the formations that have become the

art galleries. Covering a total area of about 450 square kilome-

ters, they parallel the southwestern coast of Sulawesi, and they

were sculpted over eons by rivers draining from the interior. At

least 90 rock art sites have been recorded, and Ramli reckons

many more remain.

We arrive at Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park, at the foot of the

hills, where the Centre maintains a dozen staff who look after

the caves and undertake excavations. The park is dotted with

stunning natural limestone sculptures: Some wouldn’t look out

of place in a Henry Moore exhibition. A

small river and yellow, blue and brown-

patterned butterflies complement the

picture; Sulawesi is known for its diversity

of butterfly species. This is where we will

spend the next four nights: sleeping on

the floor of the archeologists’ one-room

wooden guest house, built on stilts.

Not wanting to waste even a precious

minute, Pampang and Ramli take us to

see our first paintings, in Leang Pettakere,

within the park, before lunch. Pampang explains that “Leang”

in Indonesian literally means “hole,” and the term is also

applied to mean “cave.” It’s a trudge through rain forest and a

short climb in the sweaty South Sulawesi humidity to the cave’s

entrance—like many we will encounter, this one has a gaping

opening, framed by overhanging limestone shaped into massive,

leg-like vertical protrusions formed by millennia of erosion;

vines twist around them like so many art nouveau ornaments.

The near-silence of the caves is broken only by the constant drip-

drip of water. There is art, almost right away: We see our first

images of the babirusa, or “pig-deer,” indigenous to Sulawesi

and long hunted for its meat but now on the endangered species

list. Ramli points out an early attempt at restoration of the

painting. “Balai Pelestarian Cagar Budaya Makassar tried to

conserve the paintings by sharpening the paint-line, as we can

see here,” he says, but it is, he adds, rapidly fading.

These Sulawesi animal images, and those we see over the

coming four days, share many characteristics with known

western European cave images. World expert David Lewis-

Williams, professor emeritus and senior

mentor at the Rock Art Research Institute

at the University of the Witwatersrand in

Johannesburg, has observed, studied and

written on the European paintings since

the 1960s. “They are sometimes super-

imposed on another,” he writes. “They

are often juxtaposed without attention to

relative size. Many are fragmentary, the

head being the most frequently depicted

part of animals.” Images face in differing

directions, with no ground surface depicted. Hooves and other

parts are not always drawn, but when they are shown, they

sometimes hang loosely rather than stand on an imaginary

ground surface, he adds. Moreover, “Images are presented

devoid of contexts, with no trees, grass or other surround-

ings.” Remarkably, we see that these observations can be said

of the Sulawesi paintings, too.

And hand stencils are common to nearly all of these caves.

Deep in the interior of Leang Sakapao, archeologist Ramli points out a painting—so far unique—showing a pair of mating babirusa with

handprints around it.

The Sulawesi paintings

have many characteristics

in common with European

cave paintings.