Luc-Henri Fage is as passionate about the anonymous cave art of Borneo as gallery curators are about the big names of art. "They [the cave painters] were artists because art consists in transmitting an emotion. The paintings were not put there just for decoration, it was a religious act," he declares. "You could compare these paintings to the cathedrals of Europe; they are not there by chance. Their presence means that the cave itself is a sacred place."
Some of Borneo’s cave art is at least 10,000 years old, and some could be as ancient as 25,000 years old. Fage, an Associate Laureate in the year 2000, describes it as the most beautiful and varied cave art in South-east Asia. But for thousands of years, until he and his colleagues began exploring the caves in the 1990s, this impressive collection was seen only by handfuls of local inhabitants, who made no distinction between the ancient art and the graffiti drawn in the caves in recent decades. "Before we went there, Kalimantan, a region as big as France, hadn’t been visited by a single archaeologist," says Fage.
During their 30-day visit to Borneo in June 2001, Fage and his team discovered 11 caves with significant paintings in a small part of an extensive karst — limestone landscape rich in fissures and caves — which covers much of eastern Kalimantan.
Organising the Expedition
Fage, who with French archaeologist Jean-Michel Chazine first visited the karst in 1994, explains: "At the end of our visit in 1999, some of our guides told us they knew at least three caves with paintings near Gua Tewet," a cave ("gua" in Indonesian) rich in art which Fage had already visited. "You can imagine our eagerness to return."
Despite their enthusiasm, the explorers faced numerous obstacles. After so many expeditions to Borneo, Fage was getting used to overcoming its natural obstacles of tropical jungle and treacherous terrain, but Indonesia was caught up in a political upheaval, and in Kalimantan itself religious conflict was causing sporadic violence.
However this time, Fage and Chazine, who had already made eight expeditions to the karst, paying for the expeditions from their own pockets, had adequate funding, thanks not only to Fage’s Rolex Award but also to French government support for Chazine and logistical support from a French energy company exploring for natural gas in resources-rich Borneo.
This meant the pair could engage two experts, both French — biospeleologist Pierre de Coninck and karst specialist Yves Perrette. Pindi Setiawan, an Indonesian specialist on art and anthropology who has been a member of Fage’s Borneo expeditions since 1995, also took part. According to Fage, "the best teams are heterogeneous", bringing a broad range of expertise to the expedition.
A Recurring Motif
Most of the team, including 10 guides and porters, and their equipment, travelled in five dugout canoes from Borneo’s east coast into the rocky interior of Kalimantan via the Bungalon and Marang rivers, and then trekked through the wilderness. Two of the Frenchmen reached the interior a few days later in a helicopter owned by the energy company.
Asked why he keeps going back to Borneo, Luc-Henri Fage says that seeing works of art that no outsider has seen before, taking photographs of them for the first time in history and revealing them to the world at large is nothing short of miraculous, as indeed is the survival of the cave art for thousands of years. "I feel like a schoolboy whose every dream is coming true," he says. "Speleologists are the world’s last explorers."
Fage is eager to uncover the sacred meaning of the art he has discovered, though he concedes that its full significance may never be revealed to us. But his discoveries may well change experts’ understanding of much cave art. For example, in many caves around the world, drawn and painted hands can be seen, generally alongside figures of humans, animals and other motifs. Experts have long thought, logically enough, that hands were simply the signature of the artists who lived thousands of years ago. Fage and Chazine believe, however, that the cave paintings of Kalimantan prove that hands have far greater meaning, and this could be significant for cave art elsewhere.
The hands in Kalimantan’s caves often dominate, as they do in paintings in caves in many countries. Rather than being painted or drawn, the hands are shown in negative. "The artist stood with one hand pressed against the rock face, while a very fine powdered pigment was blown over the hand by mouth or through a hollow tube," explains Fage. In one cave he and Chazine found a painting made up of six stencilled hands, a message of community which can speak to us across thousands of years. Other more complex paintings show a pattern of hands resembling movements in a dance, which Chazine believes may indicate a ritual by a shaman, especially as hands and breath — two of the principal elements used to create these cave paintings — are often the two key ingredients of ancient healing rituals.
Symbols under threat
Many of the 1,000 hands now seen by Fage in Kalimantan — 500 of them discovered during the latest visit — have markings on them, such as symbolic dots and straight and zigzag lines. At Gua Tewet, Fage has catalogued 30 recurring hand designs. "It’s some form of communication code, with a symbolism that could signify membership of a clan or social group, or initiation rites or shamanic rituals."
Another major discovery in June 2001, in Gua Tamrim, was a series of paintings of long, thin human figures, many of them wearing masks and long, elaborate head-dresses similar to those still worn in, for example, ceremonies on the island of New Britain, about 4,000 kilometres to the east of Borneo.
Speculation about the artists who created these paintings continues, but Chazine has suggested that they could be the "cousins" of the Aborigines in Australia, to the south-east, whose art has much in common with the cave art of Kalimantan.
But this art that has survived thousands of years now faces many threats, such as the potential risk that foreign art collectors will commission people to remove from the caves sections of the limestone walls bearing paintings — as has happened in Guatemala. An even more urgent risk to the caves and their art is posed by businesses that want huge quantities of limestone — such as that in the karst — to manufacture cement. "I realise that a developing country needs cement," says the French speleologist. "However, they should be urged to get specialists to study which areas to take limestone from. In the jungle, there are no restrictions at all." Another threat, from tree-loggers who want to exploit the abundant forests, also leaves the region vulnerable.
Protecting the Paintings
Fage is campaigning vigorously to protect Kalimantan’s cave art. He believes it should be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List which already includes 690 cultural and natural sites around the world. The World Bank, which learned of the importance of the karst itself through publicity about Fage’s expeditions and international coverage of his Rolex Award, has already expressed interest in finding ways to save the region.
In September 2002, largely as a result of lobbying by Fage and his French colleagues, a major gathering will be held in Indonesia to allow 30 international experts from various disciplines to discuss ways to save the cave art and the natural assets of the region.
Another important method of preserving the cave art, and of raising awareness of it, is reproducing it in books, television programmes, photos, drawings and on the Web, where Fage and his colleagues hope to recreate the caves and their art in a virtual, three-dimensional form that is not possible in books.
The Way Forward
All these activities will, in turn, encourage international interest in the little-known region. "The best and most durable industry for the region is eco-tourism," says Fage. "The tourist who comes wants to see flora and fauna as well as cave art, not tree stumps, so the region itself must be protected."
"The first step in ensuring that," Fage concludes, "is to make Indonesia understand it has a great treasure, things of great artistic and archaeological value."
Published in 2002