Marja-Leena Rathje
Home ::: Borneo rock art

Borneo rock art


Stone Gallery
Photograph by Carsten Peter

I'm really enjoying this month's issue of the National Geographic magazine, particularly the beautiful article 'Hands Across Time, Exploring the Rock Art of Borneo', also found on NG's website.

"Deep within the cliffside caves of eastern Borneo, 10,000-year-old paintings featuring the hands of the artists themselves may offer clues about ancient migrations." Thus begins an excerpt of the article, well worth reading. Then view the photo gallery.

The interactive image is magical and powerful. "Ghostly hands--many decorated with dots, dashes, and other patterns--reach out from the wall of Gua Tewet in the rain forest of eastern Borneo. Dated back to more than 10,000 years ago, the stenciled hands may suggest initiation or shamanistic rituals, perhaps related to prehistoric Aboriginal art in Australia. The French-Indonesian expedition team called hands connected by long curving lines, at right, a "tree of life." The design may symbolize ties that connect individuals, families, territories, or spirits to each other."

Luc-Henri Fage, the author of this story, wrote on the occasion of this, his ninth expedition: "I'd thought back to my first expedition here 17 years ago. A documentary filmmaker and magazine editor, I had set out on a 700-mile (1,100-kilometer) trek from one end of Kalimantan to the other with a few caving friends. Halfway across the island, taking shelter under a rock, we found ancient charcoal drawings on the ceiling. When I returned to France, I was surprised to learn that no such rock art had ever been reported in Kalimantan.

I returned in 1992 with Jean-Michel Chazine, a French archaeologist and specialist in Oceanian prehistory. Two years later we discovered prehistoric paintings in East Kalimantan. In 1995 Pindi Setiawan, an Indonesian anthropologist, joined our team, and together, year after year, we found dozens of caves with paintings throughout the region, some with unique designs hinting at a mysterious forgotten people." They have found about 1,500 hand prints in 30 caves.

And then there is their marvellous website Le Kalimanthrope, about past expeditions and amazing photos of exquisite prehistoric artwork. Most of it is in French, but the numerous pages of photos with almost 40 photos of Gua Tewet speak for themselves.

Marja-Leena | 13/08/2005 | 3 comments
themes: Photography, Rock Art & Archaeology


Marja-Leena, thank you so much for these periodic posts about cave and rock art, which always touch something deep in me. The immediacy of the hand stencils is very moving, and reminds me too of how I used to do this as a child. I took a look at the French site too - lots of beautiful pictures there, of the local landscapes as well.

speaking of national geographic, did you happen to see their spread on Petra a few years back? pretty amazing.

Beth, that 'touching something deep inside me' is exactly my feeling, that ephemeral connection to artists from a time incredibly long ago.

Oh yes, Karen, that issue is one of my most treasured! Some of those photos are on my desktop slide show when this machine isn't active.