Stone Age Cave Art, Artifacts Found in Borneo

L. Peat O'Neil
for National Geographic News
July 22, 2005

French and Indonesian archeologists and cavers have discovered evidence of Stone Age human settlements in caves on the island of Borneo. Human and animal bones, ceramics, and charcoal found in the caves suggest that humans cooked and ate there some 10,000 years ago.

At the time of the fall 2003 discovery—which is just now being announced in the August 2005 issue of National Geographic—researchers were surveying and photographing handprints and other ancient designs (see pictures from the magazine) on cave surfaces. By chance, team members discovered human remains in Kalimantan, a mountainous region on the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo.

Until now, the earliest known human settlements on the world's fourth-largest island were pinned to the Sabah, Sarawak, and Brunei regions. "This is the first time evidence of human sites has been found so deep in the interior of Borneo," said Luc-Henri Fage, a French caver and expedition co-leader.

During an earlier expedition, in March 2003, Fage and caver Serge Caillaut had found ancient carvings of bee nests on cave walls and a ceramic funeral urn in a separate rock shelter at a cave known as Liang Kerim.

Remote Caves

The National Geographic Society Expeditions Council and the governments of France and Indonesia supported the subsequent expedition in the fall of 2003.

Team members aimed to survey and photograph Stone Age cave art, study associated archaeological periods, and document cave topography in a broader effort to protect the limestone ranges of Kalimantan.

For six weeks a dozen scientists and photographers, assisted by 22 guides and porters, trekked through arduous terrain, living in mosquito-infested camps and subsisting on a bare-bones diet of rice and fish.

The team penetrated Borneo's interior by river. Porters lugged heavy backpacks, scaffolding, lights, cameras, and food for miles into the jungle. "It was two days' walk to the five most beautiful caves," said Fage, a veteran of a dozen prior expeditions in Indonesia.

Fage surveyed and documented images in cave sites found on previous expeditions in Borneo. He stenciled handprints and other designs from cave walls onto plastic transparencies for further study. Together with his colleagues, Fage plans to set up an archive of images to aid study of the rock art by specialists.

The explorer expressed special enthusiasm for a 5-by-4-foot (1.5-by-1.2-meter) bee's-nest image, which the team revisited near a site known as Gua Tewet.

"This rock art is a representation of a huge bee nest, plus what I call a bee tree, a kind of tree with eight wild bee's nests under the branches of the tree," Fage said. "That's unique in the world."

Continued on Next Page >>


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