Published: August 2005
Hands Across Time: Exploring the Rock Art of Borneo
By Luc-Henri Fage
A painting in Gua Tewet records a shaman's trek into the spirit world, Chazine says. The lizard in the center represents the shaman. The jagged line under the lizard—a sort of stairway—stands for the shaman's difficult path. The smooth lines on the right symbolize the successful completion of the journey, when the shaman attains an altered state of consciousness that affects all parts of his body and allows him to communicate with spirits. The hand stencils themselves evoke traditional healing rituals in which a shaman lays his hands on a sick person, then sprays medicine from his mouth onto the patient to cure him.

A few steps ahead of me on the jungle trail, my Dayak friend and guide, Ham, suddenly stopped. "Careful, Luc, a snake!" he said. The rain had fogged my glasses, but I could still make out the big bluish black cobra he'd almost stepped on. A snakebite could have been deadly, since we didn't have any serum with us, and the closest clinic was two days behind us by foot, and another two days by boat. We stood in silence, listening to the patter of rain on the tropical forest as the cobra unfurled itself and disappeared into the bushes.

We were heading for Ilas Kenceng, the most beautiful and inaccessible of all the caves we'd discovered in Borneo. When we first saw it in 1998, we had only a few hours to study its mysterious rock art before we had to hike out, leaving us with many unanswered questions: Who made these images? When? And why? Now we were on our way back to look for more clues.

There were 35 of us in all on our French-Indonesian team, including archaeologists, cavers, guides, a film crew, canoe paddlers, porters, and a cook. We'd begun our expedition a month before on the coast of the Makassar Strait in East Kalimantan in the Indonesian part of Borneo. Pushing off into the chocolaty Bungalun River in ten heavily laden pirogues, we'd headed for a region where there are no roads or villages, only endless jungle and jagged limestone peaks. Our plan was to follow the Bungalun to its confluence with the Marang River, then continue north into the mountains, stopping along the way to investigate a string of caves with similar rock art.

Sitting on the duckboards of my precarious little boat, its gunwales inches above the waterline, 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 (1127 kilometers) 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.

To reach our target caves this year, we followed the meandering river along the jagged peaks of the Marang Mountains. There we set up camp beside a clear spring, stringing hammocks between trees. For his dinner, our cook roasted six-inch-long (15.2 centimeters) scorpions, which he said were good for virility. The rest of us preferred rice. The wind kicked up just before dark, shaking leaves from the forest canopy, and a tropical storm pelted down. Once it had passed, the red ants swarmed in, their bite as painful as wasp stings. Jufri, a Bugi guide who always seemed to think of everything, drove them away by lighting just enough gasoline under our hammocks.

The next morning, back in our pirogues, we motored toward Gua Tewet, a cave named for one of our most experienced guides. For the past 40 years, Tewet had been searching caves in the region for edible birds' nests, a delicacy in great demand at Singapore and Hong Kong restaurants catering to wealthy Chinese. Several years ago he'd remembered the cave and told us about it.

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.

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.