Cave Paintings In Sulawesi - Indonesia

To the north of Ujang Pandang, the major city on the Indoneaion island of Sulawesi, there is a large limestone massif containing numerous caves. In the vicinity of the village of Leang-Leang, which lies at the southern end of the limestone outcrop, are a series of caves and rock shelters which are famous for their prehistoric cave paintings. Although these are not the only cave paintings to be found in Sulawesi they are by far the most accessible, being only one hours drive from Ujang Pandang and, in several instances conserved and opened to the public.

Leang-Leang literally means "many caves" in the local Makassonese dialect and the village is certainly surrounded by a wealth of caves. It is set on an alluvial plain of rice paddies from which rises a spectacular backdrop of sheer limestone cliffs and towers. At the foot of these cliffs are numerous small caves and undercut rock shelters which have been formed by solution at, or just below, the level of the paddy fields.

Gradual uplift in geological history, and the subsequent lowering of the plain level, has resulted in the formation of caves at many different levels. Fossil "cliff-foot" caves are seen high on the towers a well as at their bases. In the dry season the water table below the paddy fields (which are themselves underlain by limestone) is higher than the water table below the limestone towers and water drains away at the base of the cliffs in a series of sinks. In the rainy season this situation can reverse with the sinks becoming resurgences.

The caves formed by solution at the cliff-foot are typically recessed under a large overhang festooned with aerial stalactites and rock pinnacles. The rear of these shelters contain networks of enlarged joints and beddings forming 3-D mazes but rarely penetrating the rock mass very far. Below the water table, water movement is limited and any cave formation completely sumped.

It is the dry, high level rock shelters at Leang-Leang that were favoured by the early inhabitants of Sulawesi as occupation sites. Several caves have been excavated in recent years to reveal evidence of occupation dating back 5-10,000 years. There now remains little sign of this habitation, except for masses of freshwater shells which must have provided an important element in the occupants' diet. The main feature of interest remaining from these prehistoric cave dwellers is the paintings in red and brown ocre which can still be found it many of the caves. The paintings are mainly of hands in negative style, produced by placing the hand against the rod and spraying paint over them to leave an image on the rock. (Presumably with a blow-pipe. Ed.) This is a technique alscoseen in several European painted cave sites (eg. Pech-Merle in France) although these European sites are of greater antiquity

At Leang-Leang the paintings are found in high inaccessible alcoves in the roof of the caves and although many have been destroyed over the years they are still quite numerous. Some of the best examples are protected by the Indonesian State in a well run archaeological park where an airy iron stairway leads to a cave, 20m up the face of an overhanging cliff. This cave (Gua Pettakere) contains some fine hand prints together with a somewhat disfigured painting which appears to be a stylised boat (babirusa). Other protected caves at Leang-Leang are :- Gue Pette, Leang Jane, Leang Saripa, Leang Karrasa.

It is interesting to speculate how early man reached these high caves to execute the paintings and what the purpose or significance of these paintings was to that early society. It is likely that these more inaccessible cave sites were used as burial caves, as are caves to this day in Tang Toraja some 200 miles to the north.

In addition to the cliff-foot shelter caves at Leang there are also many extensive caves containing long and passages. These are generally remnants of once large systems which have been intersected by the formation of karst. To date there is no evidence of these larger having been occupied or of them containing paintings.

Cave paintings from Gue Pette - Sulawesi - Indonesia

Cave paintings from Gue Pette - Sulawesi - Indonesia

Allan Ockenden