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Letter from East Timor: Timor's Safe Havens Volume 56 Number 5, September/October 2003
by Karen J. Coates

How caves helped shape the history of the world's newest nation

You can't just go to the cave; it requires a bit of ceremony. It takes a gathering of men in a thatch pavilion, each one clutching a machete, chewing betel nut, smoking, and chattering with the man beside him. They sit on pink plastic chairs and wooden benches while a venerable gray-haired custodian assesses the situation. His name is Rafael Guimarez, and he decides yes or no. His cousin, Paolo da Costa, also decides yes or no. And their cousin, Enrique do Santos, decides yes or no. If, and only if, all three agree, may you go to the cave.

Ili Kere Kere cave has, after all, helped shape a nation's history. It sits high on a cliffside at the eastern edge of Timor Island, a patch of land now split between Indonesia and East Timor. It's one of many caves imbued with spiritual import, caves that have served as safe havens for millennia. Archaeologists now know early humans passed through this landscape at least 30,000 years ago. Tens of thousands of years later, they painted cave walls with fantastic designs. Pleistocene fishermen and Neolithic gardeners sheltered in these caves, and in recent years guerrillas hid from the Indonesian army in them.

For 450 years, the Portuguese colonized East Timor. Indonesia invaded in 1975, and twenty-four years of rebel warfare followed. The Indonesians killed at least 200,000 Timorese--a quarter of the population. In 1999, the Timorese voted for independence, and violence escalated. United Nations troops intervened and helped form a transitional government. East Timor became a sovereign nation on May 20, 2002.

For the first time in their history, East Timor's people were free. And for the first time in decades, East Timor was open to scientists. A team of Australian archaeologists quickly arrived in 2000 to study the island's caves and to pick up where others left off in the 1960s. The team first dug at Lene Hara cave, not far from Ili Kere Kere. "There wasn't much in the site," says archaeologist Matthew Spriggs of Australian National University. But a few months after the dig, radiocarbon dates revealed that shells found in Lene Hara were 30,000 years old. That "more than doubled the history of East Timor," he says. Spriggs and his colleagues would soon learn age was not the only surprise lurking in these caves.

Karen J. Coates is a freelance journalist. Her book on postwar Cambodian life will be published by McFarland & Company in 2004. Jerry Redfern is a photographer for the AsiaWorks photo agency in Bangkok.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America