Explorer's Notebook: The Riddle of Indonesia's Ancient Statues

December 12, 2001

Lore Lindu, on Indonesia's island of Sulawesi, is a forest with secrets. There are birds that laugh like people and primates three inches high. There are also ancient granite carvings, called megaliths, that no one can explain.

The megaliths vary in size from a few inches to 15 feet (4.5 meters) high. No one knows who carved them, when, or why. According to local legend, they were long-ago criminals who turned to stone and were abandoned.

Until now, the existence and location of the megaliths was not formally documented. The Nature Conservancy is helping Indonesian park officials to find and protect the carvings, as well as the forest around them. So far more than 400 of the carvings have been found in and around the park.

Among the megaliths are about 30 arca menhirs, or human forms. Some are toppled over in rivers, their massive faces and unblinking eyes covered in mud and drifting leaves. Others stand forgotten in rice fields, obscured by long grasses.

Simplistic Features

Local people believe some of the statues may have been used for ancestor worship. One named Tokala'ea, for instance, is said to be a rapist turned to stone; deep cuts in the rock represent scars from knives. Another statue named Tadulako—once a trusted village protector who turned to granite after stealing rice—was left to gaze across the valley at the villagers he betrayed.

All of the carvings on the arca mehirs is minimalistic. The statues have oversize heads, round eyes, and a single line to define eyebrows, cheeks, and chin. They have straight bodies and no legs; some have oversize genitalia. Many stand alone, while others are in pairs or small groups.

Also found amid the figures are large urns called kalambas, which may have been used as elaborate coffins or cisterns for water. Some local people insist they were bathtubs for nobles, but Edward Pollard of The Nature Conservancy said that's unlikely, pointing to the heavy lids usually found nearby. "You're not going to mess with a thick stone cover like that just for a wash," he said.

Neglected for centuries, many of the cracked kalambas are now filled with delicate white flowers on wire-thin grasses. Nearby are stone tablets with cavities, perhaps used for grinding food, and low, cracked stone tables, which may have been altars.

The original purpose of the carvings remains a mystery. They were abandoned long ago, and no tools or other evidence of the society that built them has been found.

Carvings Unique

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