Academic journal article Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific

Rock Art, Burials, and Habitations: Caves in East Kalimantan

Academic journal article Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific

Rock Art, Burials, and Habitations: Caves in East Kalimantan

Article excerpt


This paper presents a brief summary of a program of study of the archaeology of caves and rock shelters in East Kalimantan, especially the results of recent fieldwork along the Marang River. The caves and rock shelters cluster into three groups in terms of their elevations in the karstic landscape and their archaeological remains. The highest and most inaccessible caves are the locations of rock paintings. Caves at middle locations have produced evidence for funerary activity. Large, dry rock shelters, mostly flat-bottomed, at the foot of the cliffs were preferred for habitation. The paintings consist especially of hand stencils but also include anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures as well as other motifs. A stalactite date indicates that the earliest hand stencils may predate ca. 10,000 B.P., and drawings of what may be extinct animals suggest that some of the other motifs could be of such antiquity. The funerary material includes both pottery similar to Neolithic material elsewhere in Borneo and also later material associated with bronze artifacts. Some of the habitation sites may be pre-Neolithic on the evidence of multiple AMS dates between 4000 and 11750 B.P.; others are more recent. A particular focus of further research will need to be an attempt to establish the antiquity and the authorship of the rock art, and its relationship, if any, to the Holocene uses of the caves for burials and habitation. KEYWORDS: Kalimantan, Borneo, rock art, cave burial, cave habitation.


THE DISCOVERY OF CHARCOAL DRAWINGS in a rock shelter by Luc-Henri Fage and a caving team on a trek through Kalimantan from Pontianak to Samarinda in 1988 initiated an extensive program of ethnoarchaeological survey. Every year since 1992, a Franco-Indonesian team has conducted surveys of caves and rock shelters in East Kalimantan, providing a large set of new data from different periods and greatly enlarging archaeological knowledge of this part of Island Southeast Asia. Caves appear to have been used as habitation locations from late Pleistocene to contemporary periods. The discovery of paddle-impressed pottery decorated with cord, herring-bone, and plaited impressions in the rugged and inaccessible central Muller Range, and dated as early as about 3000 years ago, was a clue that this remotest part of Borneo had been settled in prehistory (Chazine 1995).

It was clearly important to map the distribution of these cave sites in order to establish the geographical range of the pottery makers. Also, because figurative and expressive paintings had been observed in Sarawak caves such as Niah, Gua Sarang, and Sarang (Datan 1993; T. Harrisson 1958; Solheim 1983) and had been generally linked to the late Austronesian period (from ca. 2000 B.P. to perhaps 100 years ago), it was assumed that there were no archaic (pre-Austronesian) paintings there or, more generally, in Borneo (Ballard 1992). However, the unexpected discovery in 1994 north of Sangkulirang of negative handprints associated with very different symbolic and zoomorphic figures cast doubt on this assumption and reoriented investigations (Chazine 1999). Discoveries have included caves with deposits that have yielded domestic and funerary pottery, lithic assemblages, and faunal remains. Around 100 caves and rock shelters have now been located and surveyed in East Kalimantan, many of which have produced evidence that suggests occupation by prehistoric hunter-gatherer communities (Fig. 1). The construction of roads through the primary forest by logging companies has also exposed evidence of open sites, especially on hilltops and along streams, though these sites consist only of lithic scatters that have not yielded organic remains suitable for [sup.14]C dating.


Since 1998, a series of caves and rock shelters has been mapped on and around the upper Bangalon River in the northwest of Samarinda, many of them, especially the remotest and highest caves in karstic outcrops, decorated with stenciled handprints, sometimes with figures superimposed. …

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