Discovery of New Cave Paintings in East Kalimantan (Borneo), Indonesia

Jean-Michel Chazine (CNRS-CREDO, France)

This paper appears Speleo an on-line caving journal at (an underline joins “borneo” and “anglais”). It is published here, with some editorial amendments, at the request of the author, who also supplied the following French abstract.

Depuis quelches années, des expéditions de repérage conduites dans la partie indonésienne de Bornéo (Provinces de Kalimantan) ont commencé a révéler les différentes phases d’occupation de cette île, restée jusqu’à présent en dehors des recherches archéologiques. La découverte tout à fait imprévue de peintures rupestres en 1994 à Kalimantan Timur a commencé à lever un voile important du passé de cet immense territoire. En septembre 1998 la découverte de deux nouveaux groupes de grottes ornées de peintures remarquables par leur nombre, leur variété et leur etat de conservation, confirme l’importance du potential préhistorique de cette région. Réparties dans 9 cavités, plus de 400 empreintes de mains, des représentations anthropo et zoo-morphes notamment, indiquent une forte corrélation avec l’expression rupestre de Nouvelle Guinée et jusqu’à l’Australie des Aborigènes.


Following a couple of ethno- and archaeo-speleological surveys carried out in the eastern part of Indonesia’s Kalimantan Province on Borneo Island, a expedition organized in 1998 on behalf of Ministry of Tourism has found two sets of quite exceptional decorated caves.

Located in the upper levels of gigantic and steep karst outcrops, these two groups of caves exhibit prehistoric paintings which are remarkable for their number, their pictorial content and their state of preservation.

The first group comprises two caves situated in the middle of a cliff about 30 meters apart. They contain roughly 60 hand stencils concentrated in only two to three panels. The disposition of the stencils indicates the panels intentionally organized.

The other group, 80 km westwards, comprises three large chambers with at least 200 figures including more than 140 hand prints. More than 20 of them have anthropo-and zoo-morphic features in the form of linear or punctuated marks inside the stencil blanks. Moreover, painted on the roof of a “laminoir”, about one meter high, three bovine figures larger than one meter are to be seen. They seem to be clear representations of an almost-vanished wild small cow. The representations, at almost 1:1 scale, seems to be the first of their kind ever found. The next two features appear to be deer involved in a hunting scene, and are associated with some pairs of hand stencils.

Paintings are located upon walls, alcoves or niches, from one meter to more than ten meters above ground level. Depending on location, some paintings are covered by a calcite layer of variable thickness. For example, one hand print is covered by a calcite flow up to 15 cm thick, which, whatever the formation conditions would have been, is an indication of extreme age. Locations do not yet show any specific disposition related to entry into dark places.

Many anthropomorphic representations often appear inside hand prints blanks and sometimes in autonomous locations. In an especially remarkable case, anthropo- and zoo-morphic features are associated with a curvilinear track linking two hand stencils. The analogy with some expressions present in Australian Aboriginal art appears to be very strong and the ethnographic literature suggests the Borneo art in question may be read as some form of “initiates’ trek”. Some hand prints have internal linear tracks evoking tattooing figures like those still executed by Mentawi communities in the Siberut Islands (South Sumatra), as well as the “X ray” drawings frequently present in some Australian Aboriginal pictorial expression.

Several superimposed hand tracks show strong evidence for a chronology which is also revealed through the variety of pigments. Apart the black colour, we found at least four different colours varying from black-brown to light-red.

Within these two cave groups, the disposition of the hand prints appears to be well-organized, expressing deliberated rhythms. One or more circular moves mixing right and left hands are to be seen, showing clearly that ritual efficiency was associated with artistic expression. This organization in the display of these negative hand prints provides a very different expression than what until know has been known about rock art in Indonesia.

Let us recall that until 1994, when we discovered the first cave with unexpected prehistoric paintings, the whole of Borneo was considered by specialists as totally lacking in rock art. It was thought that paintings would not appear west of West Sulawesi (Leang Burung and Maros Caves mostly), eastward of Makassar Straits and Wallace Line. This view was based upon the fact that investigations had been carried out only in the Malaysian states of Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei.

Year after year, caves we have discovered have provided growing inventory of pictorial expressions, attesting, amongst other things that their utilization was not for utilitarian habitation.

The discoveries which have been made through an area bordered by the sea and the meridional bow of the Mangkalihat Range. This area may extend on the two sides of Wallace Line the culture-area that links the southeastern end of the Indonesian archipelago. The formal analogy between pictorial expression found in Australia and those which have just been discovered in Borneo reinforce that possibility.

As a matter of fact, the Borneo discoveries means that diachronic schemes of cultural influence between the Asian and Australian continents are brought into some focus. In particular, the size of the extension but also the orientation of the trend of relationships on both sides of Wallace Line has to be more carefully approached and therefore needs more investigation.

With origins probably predating the arrival of Austronesians into Borneo 4,000-5,000 years ago, that culture-area or a “Rock Art Culture”, could correspond to the period when climatic and marine changes occurred at the end of Pleistocene provoking the geographic isolation of the local insular communities.

The diversity and unity of these new discovered paintings (displayed on Internet: confirm that the huge size and the strategic location of Borneo require an attention and an investigation program much larger than what has been previously and almost randomly gained.

The different investigations which are currently carried out in the neighbouring archipelagoes and especially Sulawesi, should benefit from the discovery of these Rock Art expressions which affords a new feature for the space occupation and dwelling process in South East Asia Island.