Table of Contents Table of Contents
Previous Page  11 / 52 Next Page
Show Menu
Previous Page 11 / 52 Next Page
Page Background

May/June 2015


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

carbon dioxide.

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

sop buntut


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.