Speaking of the southwestern European hand stencils, Lewis-
Williams says interpretation is complicated: Image-making was,
he asserts, a ritual. “One has to recognize that the caves are
passages into a spiritual subterranean realm,” he says, adding
that they are “veils” between worlds. “Placing a hand on the
veil was not primarily to make a picture of a hand (‘I was
here’), but rather to make contact with the spiritual realm and
its power. Paint applied to the hand was probably a ‘solvent’, a
powerful substance that facilitated penetration of the veil.”
Ramli points out that here, “some of them have incomplete
fingers, only three or four, and some only the palms, and some
show the arm.” Similar incomplete finger images are found
in the western European and Australian hand stencils, too.
Competing theories have been put forward on their meaning,
from fingers bent as a sort of sign language, to ritual severing of
fingers and even natural causes such as gangrene. “Some inter-
pretations by previous researchers have compared them with the
Papua and Aborigine culture, who cut their finger [off] when
they are in grieving,” adds Ramli.
On the practical aspect, some experiments were carried
out in the early 1990s by French prehistoric art specialist
Michel Lorblanchet in a cave in France. He replicated “spit-
painting” by spraying paint from his mouth about 7 to 10
centimeters (2" to 4") from the rock wall, and he very closely
duplicated various hand images.
It’s not known if the practice has been continuous, but a
hand-stencil tradition exists even today among the dominant
ethnic group of southwestern Sulawesi, the Bugis. When a
family builds a new house, before they move in, the head of the
family places his hand in a nut- or rice-powder mixture and
presses an image on the main beams of the structure in a cere-
mony conducted by a specially designated master of ceremonies.
The act is reputed to bring good fortune to the new residents.
Next we trek along raised sod walkways around rice fields
and the occasional cattle farm to Leang Burung 2 whose long
history of excavation stretches from 1970 to 2012. Most of
the caves are named by the locals based on what they first
saw when the cave was discovered: “Burung” means “bird,”
and Pampang tells us swallows used to nest here extensively.
This site is not in a cave, but rather at the foot of the cliff,
above which is a cave with paintings. The four-decade exca-
vation went as deep as six meters below the surface before
watering over, and it provided archeologists with one of the
most continuous records of humans making tools and dining
going back 35,000 years—the oldest evidence for modern
humans in Sulawesi at the time. (Other sites, in Java, have
evidence back 45,000 years.)
A sister site nearby called Leang Burung 1 shows how
quickly many of the images are fading ever since trees were
cleared from near the entrance, which admits more sunlight and
Four caves on the first day was an inspiring start. Back at
base camp, the local archeology catering crew has brought in
dinner: rice, fish and a soup Westerners would call oxtail, but
here it’s the popular Indonesian
Also unusual among the Maros-Pangkep imagery is this boat with
two people, which appears on a wall in Bulu Sipong. One person
appears to be spearing fish while the other poles or paddles the craft.
This painting is interpreted by Ramli and Pampang as
showing a woman with spiky hair dragging a lassoed anoa—an
animal much like a small water buffalo.
At the entrance to
Leang Sakapao, expedition staff stop for coffee and snacks.