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These watercraft images would be ideal for dating, says Ramli,

but unfortunately, they lack sufficient calcite overlay. One

more rare sight: a painting of a manta ray.

In a later interview back in Makassar, Hakim offers an

explanation of why we saw so much wildlife in the caves. “We

always related the painting to some kind of magical, sacred

ceremony, as a hope or prayer that the hunting will get a good

result,” he says. It was also a way of describing their environ-

ment, he adds.

Over the past four days, it feels as if

we’ve not only seen paintings, but glimpsed

also into prehistoric minds that we are

only now recognizing put Sulawesi into

the global picture of the early evolution of

art. But like all new theories, this one too

will take some time to crystallize, and that

only after much more research and many

more dating projects, if it is to be fully and

unarguably accepted.

Hakim figures a whole lot more cave

art, too, remains to be discovered and dated. He sees ancient

Sulawesi as one of the geographic melting pots for the first

migrations of modern humans. For example, “Kalimantan

[Borneo] was one bridge to Sulawesi,” he says, and as a result,

that is a prime new area to test.

Aubert agrees. He says he is planning more dating of rock art

in Sulawesi, and he is currently dating paintings found in Kali-

mantan. By determining the ages of more Southeast Asian rock

art, he will provide the Sulawesi works with a context.

But time is of the essence in a more urgent sense, too. As

we’ve seen on all four days of cave visits, the Sulawesi paint-

ings are under environmental attack. They are fast disappear-

ing. Back at the Makassar offices, we sit down in the Centre’s

library with a concerned Iwan Sumantri, lecturer in archeol-

ogy at the city’s Hasanuddin University. “As a researcher, as

an archeologist, I am very worried for the mining around the

prehistoric caves in Maros-Pangkep,” he says. “Moreover, how

the local people threaten the preservation

of the caves, such as burning rice stalks

around them—making deterioration of the

rock paintings faster.”

Conservation has taken on new urgency

with the new dating. Sumantri says the

first step in site preservation is documenta-

tion, and that about 90 of 127 caves with

art so far discovered have been recorded.

Second, he advocates a public information

and awareness program, followed by rules

and restrictions. “Physical conservation can

be conducted, for example, to make the paintings last longer

by searching out materials related to other rock art paintings.”

Physical barriers, like fences at some of the more important

sites, will help reduce vandalism, he adds.

After all, these are globally important sites. “It has implica-

tions not only for our understanding of rock art in Southeast

Asia and Europe but also Australia,” writes Paul Ta on of

Griffith University and his co-authors in a 2014



entitled “The global implications of the early surviving rock art

A ledge along the steep trail up the bluff to Leang Sakapao offers a dramatic view of surrounding hills, blocked partially by a massive,

trunk-like pillar of limestone. The increase of population and human activity in the region is changing delicate balances of carbon dioxide,

moisture and other environmental conditions that have preserved the paintings for so long, lending urgency to further dating work and

regional conservation.

The new dates from

Sulawesi, says Aubert,

“suggest a deeper origin

for human creativity,

perhaps in Africa.”