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Borneo Cave Art Volume 52 Number 3, May/June 1999
by Paul G. Bahn

Two groups of caves decorated with hundreds of hand stencils have been discovered in northeastern Borneo, within the borders of Indonesia, confirming the presence of cave art on the island. A Franco-Indonesian expedition working on behalf of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism, led by Jean-Michel Chazine of France's National Center for Scientific Research and speleologist-photographer Luc-Henri Fage, found no archaeological material in the caves, leading them to surmise that they were probably used as sanctuaries. Based on stylistic comparisons with cave paintings on nearby islands, the researchers believe the art may be between 8,000 and 20,000 years old.

Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, is an area the size of France and had remained unexplored archaeologically until 1992, when French researchers began systematic surveys. Investigating mostly limestone caves, Chazine and Fage discovered the remains of numerous dwellings, then, in 1994, their first decorated grotto. This past fall they found two parallel caves, one located above the other and containing about 60 hand stencils each. Known as Gua Masri, after their guide's name, the caves have three panels with hand stencils in a seemingly purposeful arrangement; alternating left and right hands are arranged in a fan-like design.

In a nearby mountain range, a group of vast, contiguous chambers known as Ilas Kenceng contains at least 200 paintings, including some 140 hand stencils as well as anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures, lines, and dots. The paintings are found on walls and ceilings and in niches and alcoves, at heights between three and 30 feet above the present floor. Some are very eroded or covered by thick stalagmitic flows, while others are astonishingly fresh. One unusual feature is that some of the hands contain internal lines or dots that call to mind "X-ray" representations found in Australian aboriginal rock art. A variety of pigments was used-black, plus at least four others ranging from brown-black to bright red. On the ceiling of one area are three images of horned animals, one of which may be a benteng (Bos javanicus), a wild forest bovid that is close to extinction. The two others may be deer. Chazine sees close parallels between the the rock art of Borneo and Australia and says his discoveries may provoke "questions about human settlement in the Indo-Pacific area."

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America