Extreme heat and humidity, insects, and storms posed constant hardships to the expedition. The team endured "endless mosquitoes, spiders, scorpions, and serpents in the caves that feed on the bats," Fage said. "You [had] to pay attention."
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The team set out to survey six of the most ornately decorated caves located in limestone formations spread through some 60 miles (100 kilometers) of dense jungle in the Marang mountains on the Mangkalihat peninsula of east Kalimantan. Three more caves were discovered during the expedition, Fage said.
"Climbing up is one thing, but climbing down, sometimes at dusk, sometimes under a stormy rain, was the regular price to pay for our expedition," said Jean-Michel Chazine, a co-leader of the expedition and a member of the French National Center for Scientific Research in Marseille.
Inside the rock shelters, the researchers excavated stone tools and artifacts made of ceramic, animal bones, and freshwater shells. In some places, they found human bones. Animal bones found with charcoal lead researchers to surmise that humans cooked and ate the animals as food.
The team left most large surface artifacts undisturbed.
Commenting several years ago in Science News magazine, Paul Taçon of the Australian Museum in Sydney wrote that the Borneo cave art study was "extremely important, [providing] the first significantly old and reliable date for rock art of the region."
Experts interpret of the act of painting on cave walls in different ways. The Borneo rock art depicted interlinked and marked handprints and didn't appear in the normal dwelling places of its creators.
The researchers suggest this might signal that the cave art was not meant to be seen by everybody.
"The places and their aesthetic content are probably symbolic representations of relationships," Chazine said. "It may be oriented to a communication with the spirits [or ancestors or any deity] because of the remote location of almost all paintings."
See pictures and read more about this expedition in the August 2005 issue of National Geographic.
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