Near the end of our expedition, after we'd spent many hours photographing, measuring, and documenting the paintings at Ilas Kenceng, I woke up one morning on my groundsheet in the mouth of the cave. The forest below was bathed in a soft morning mist, monkeys were screaming, and birds swirled in circles, feeding on insects. I was exhausted, covered with dust. But I didn't want to leave. We still had so many questions.
High above me in an alcove was a magical piece of art, six hand stencils spread like a bouquet (opposite page). Each print was delicate, but together they seemed vibrant with energy as if they'd been created only moments ago. In 2000 a piece of calcite covering a hand in another part of the cave had been tested in a mass spectrometer at France's National Center for Scientific Research. It proved to be at least 10,000 years old, meaning that the hand beneath the calcite had to be even older.
Getting up from the floor, I walked back into the cave, where Jufri was boiling water for coffee. Of all the guides, only he had agreed to sleep in the cave. The rest were frightened of the ghosts said to roam such sacred places. I didn't know about ghosts, but I couldn't deny that I too was now haunted by the spirits of those who'd once painted these walls.
Decoding the Hands
During the past decade we've discovered about 1,500 negative handprints in 30 caves in East Kalimantan. Most of them were found not in the lowest caves beside rivers—which we know from archaeological evidence were used as dwellings as long as 12,000 years ago—nor in the caves higher up, where we discovered bones and ceramic jars from much later funerary rites. Instead, they were mainly found in the loftiest, hardest to reach caves, leading me to believe they were probably connected to special rituals open to a limited number of participants.
As we know from studies of many cultures, such secluded, forbidden spots would be perfect for the instruction and initiation of traditional healers, or shamans, often involving fasting, dancing, singing, storytelling, the inducing of trances, or the painting of symbols. The large number of hands found in some caves may record the training of new shamans, maybe only one in each generation, over thousands of years.
Handprints are a common motif in prehistoric rock art around the world. But unlike hands discovered at sites in France, Australia, and elsewhere, many in Kalimantan caves are decorated with dots, dashes, and other patterns (opposite), the significance of which is yet unknown. In some designs the hands are linked to other hands, or to drawings of people or animals, by long curving lines. Luc-Henri Fage sketched one design (below), which we called the "tree of life," from a painting in Gua Tewet (pages 32-4, 37). This design may depict the ties that bind individuals, families, territories, or spirits to one another. A similar pattern appears in a painting from Ilas Kenceng (left), which may show a shaman's path between the world of the living and the world of spirits or of the dead, perhaps hidden behind the cave's walls.
I find a remarkable similarity between the act of creating these handprints and traditional healing practices in Borneo. To create the design, a painter would place a hand on the wall, then spray it by mouth with pulverized pigments made of ochre. A traditional healer would do much the same, laying hands on the affected part of a patient's body, then expelling his breath to spray on therapeutic ingredients. Both processes resulted in a kind of magic.