Faces of the Ancestors Revealed: Discovery and Dating of a Pleistocene-Age Petroglyph in Lene Hara Cave, East Timor

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One of the largest and most diverse concentrations of rock art in Island Southeast Asia is found near the small village of Tutuala, at the eastern end of East Timor (Figure 1; O'Connor 2003). Over 20 individual shelters and caves containing art have now been recorded, but to date only pigment art had been found here, as elsewhere in East Timor (O'Connor 2003; O'Connor & Oliveira 2007).


In 2009 a small group of petroglyphs was discovered during sampling of breccia deposits in Lene Hara Cave. Despite multiple seasons of excavation by several teams and many visits to photograph the painted rock art, the petroglyphs had previously eluded discovery. Local landowners accompanying our team were also unaware of their presence. On being shown the petroglyphs, which take the form of human faces, they expressed the view that the ancestors had revealed themselves to us. Here we describe the petroglyphs and the results of Uranium/Thorium (U/Th) dating of the speleothem substrate on which the art was engraved. The dating of one of the faces to the terminal Pleistocene begins to bridge the apparent disparity in the antiquity of early artistic production between Island Southeast Asia and the western Pacific on the one hand, and Australia on the other.

History of research at Lene Hara Cave

Lene Hara is a massive, vaulted tunnel cave that extends into the side of an east-facing hillside (Figures 2 & 3). The parent limestone is predominantly fine-grained and well bedded, but bands of conglomerate are embedded in the limestone at the rear of the cave. The floor of the cave is broadly flat but slopes gently down from the rear to the entrance. The roof at the cave entrance rises to over 6m above the current floor. A number of large speleothem columns are present within the cave, one cluster towards the rear and a second group near the entrance. A larger number of short stalactites hang from the roof, generally with flattened drip surfaces below.

Lene Hara Cave was first excavated by the Portuguese anthropologist Antonio de Almeida in the early 1960s. He subsequently published a brief report of the excavation (de Almeida & Zbyszewski 1967) and some painted rock art motifs at Lene Hara as well as three other shelters in the region of Tutuala: Ile Kere Kere, Sunu Taraleu Scarp (also known as Suntaleo) and Tutuala Scarp (de Almeida 1967). Ian Glover (1972) also visited Lene Hara with John Mulvaney in 1967 and examined Almeida's still open trench. He photographed the cave and some of the painted art (Glover 1972: 42).


O'Connor, Spriggs and Veth initiated the East Timor Archaeological Project in 2000 and carried out the first scientific excavation at Lene Hara, positioning a 1 x 1m test pit adjacent to Almeida's excavation area, in the south chamber (Figure 2). This excavation produced Pleistocene-age deposits with cultural finds dating back to 35 000 BP comprising marine shellfish, animal bone and stone artefacts, and a thin upper layer that contained the same range of materials, as well as earthenware pottery (O'Connor et al. 2002). In 2002 three additional test pits were excavated revealing that different areas of the site had different occupational and chronological histories and that the site had a rich record of fauna and material culture spanning the Holocene, the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) and terminal Pleistocene (O'Connor & Veth 2005; O'Connor & Aplin 2007).

Further research on the pigment art was also carried out which described the range of motifs, and supported Almeida's earlier suggestion that the Lene Hara art displayed some distinct features that set it apart from the cliff-edge shelters of the same region (O'Connor 2003). Notable differences were the location of motifs, which in Lene Hara included paintings deep within the cave; the depiction of complex composite motifs combining figurative and geometric elements; a different set of geometric designs; and a lack of small anthropomorphs depicted in profile (O'Connor 2003). …