Leaving the boats at the river's edge, we hoisted our packs and scrambled up a 500-foot (152.4 meters) cliff of jagged rock to the mouth of the cave. Our muscles were burning, but the climb was worth it. The paintings inside were as breathtaking as when we'd first seen them in 1999: some 200 stenciled hands, remarkably preserved, along with drawings of animals and humans. About half the hands were covered with dots, lines, chevrons, or other patterns. I counted more than 50 combinations (see page 45).
"They look like tattoos," I said to Chazine.
"Or maybe body painting," he replied. Such practices still occur in Borneo and elsewhere to identify an individual's membership or status. At the center of the ceiling was the cave's tour de force: 11 hands, each decorated with a different pattern, linked in a design that evoked a family tree (pages 32-4). Not far away, two hands, connected by a broken line, framed the figure of a lizard, or perhaps a crocodile.
"We're dealing with shamanistic practices here, I'm sure of it," Chazine said, "though I don't know what kind. This jagged line evokes passage from the harsh living world into the world of spirits, which only a shaman can enter and return from."
Chazine had not come back to Kalimantan just to marvel at such paintings, however. As an archaeologist his job was to learn who created this art and when. Until now he hadn't found any signs of occupation in the best painted caves—no pottery or animal bones from campfires. But that didn't surprise him. In his mind, a lofty eagle's nest like this was better suited for sacred rituals.
"Does one eat in a cathedral?" he asked.
Instead Chazine had chosen a cave closer to the river to excavate first. That's where he and his team went the next day. With its huge porch over-looking the water, Gua Tengkorak, or "cave of the skulls," was large enough to hold dozens of people. Indeed, ceramic funeral pots from a more recent culture had been found at the foot of one wall, along with charred human and animal bones.
For the next two weeks, Chazine, Julien Espagne, a French doctoral student, and Indonesian archaeologists Gunadi Mum and Nasruddin, would carefully sift through layers of earth, searching for artifacts. Two samples of charcoal were later dated back to 12,000 years ago. Such discoveries may eventually indicate that the people who left these prints and drawings were related to the Aboriginals who'd earlier migrated to Australia and created similar rock art.
Leaving the archaeologists to their excavations, I set out on foot for Ilas Kenceng, some nine miles away, with Ham, Tewet, our film team, and Serge Caillault, my caving partner. By the time we reached the cave, however, Serge had developed a bad fever. This worried me, since my friend Guillaume Artur du Plessis, had died from leptospirosis during our trek in 1988. I wanted to evacuate Serge immediately. But when the rescue helicopter arrived, the pilot at first didn't want to put down in our makeshift landing zone. Finally he did, picking up Serge, who was later diagnosed with typhoid fever and treated with antibiotics. He pulled through just fine.