Murals on the Rocks: Art at the Dawn of Civilisation
While today’s art is taking a turn to the digital, or are taking alternative forms like NFTs, we’re catapulting into the past to examine the predecessors of today’s boundary-breaking art-forms: cave paintings across Southeast Asia.
Tucked away in a remote limestone cave in an Indonesian Borneo rainforest, scientists have found paintings lining the walls of the cave. One such artwork seems to resemble a wild cattle-like beast which appears to be similar to today’s banteng.
The most conservative estimate aged this creation at 40,000 years old, but it’s also possible for it to date further back about 51,800 years back from today.
These drawings, along with the multiple hand stencils strewn across the cave wall, gave us a window to the ancient world. Those that are tinted in a red-orange hue are made from ochre, an iron oxide pigment, are said to be at least 40,000 years old. On the other hand—no pun intended—those depicted in dark purple hues are more recent, believed to be around 20,000 years old.
With 20 millennia difference, at least, discoveries such as these offer insights into how Southeast Asian rock art traditions emerged and were passed down from one generation to another.
In this particular rock art in Sulawesi, the creator appears to be depicting a hunting scene, where mythological shape-shifting creatures known as therianthropes (part-human, part-animal) are hunting a buffalo-type animal called an anoa.
The therianthropes in the drawing can be seen to be wielding weapons or ropes, flanking the anoa. The drawing is almost five metres wide, and at the estimated age of 44,000 years old, it’s noted to be one of the oldest records of storytelling.
Researchers from Australia’s Griffith University added that it’s an exceptional find, noting that it’s very rare for such advanced artistic works to be created at that time. However, Paul Pettitt, Durham University’s rock-art specialist and archaeologist, was skeptical. “Whether it’s a scene is questionable,” he says.
In another Sulawesi find, researchers found a 35,400-year-old cave painting of a deer-pig along with a human handprint that’s at least 40 millennia old.
The exact age of the Tambun Cave rock art may be unclear, they are certainly old. Most estimates put them between 2,000 to 5,000 years old. And they’re not really in a cave; instead it’s been painted (most likely using haematite) on the side of a limestone cliff that happened to be a rock shelter that’s between 5 to 25 metres above the ground.
In a 2009 study, researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) used close range high resolution photography and digital image analysis to examine the site and found that there were once over 600 distinct rock art elements. This finding could possibly mean that Perak’s Tambun Cave is the largest rock art site in the country. However, this national treasure is exposed to the threat of urbanisation, as much of Perak’s peaks are under such imminent peril.
Drawings include humans, animals (such as a dugong, a tapir and turtles), fruit, geometric shapes and abstract motifs.
The Malaysian peninsula isn’t the only one with these artefacts. Across the South China Sea in Sarawak, you can find cave paintings in the Niah National Park, more specifically in the Painted Cave.
Though it’s not possible for visitors to get up close and personal with the ancient paintings, you will still encounter an otherworldly experience. Next to these paintings is a gravesite that features the prehistoric remnants of wooden boat-shaped coffins, nicknamed ‘boats of the dead’. The paintings themselves consist of hunters, animals, the forests, motifs and geometric designs.
As recently as last month, Cambodia made a discovery that’s making waves in the archaeological world. As such, its Ministry of Environment is working to produce a video in hopes of attaining global academic attention.
Found in the Central Cardamom National Park, in the Pursat province, archaeologists have likened the paintings here to the ones found in Egypt.
As of now, we have yet to discover the age of the paintings. What we know for sure is that these paintings were made using red paint, and captured pictures of wildlife such as elephants, deer, and wild boar.
At the Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park in West Thailand, eager archaeologists cut through thorny vegetation and unlocked a stunning discovery in 2020.
While some of the etchings are worn from limestone erosion, other drawings remain legible. On the cave wall, they found murals of humanlike figures, some adorned with accessories on their bodies, while others appear to be equipped with bow and arrow, ready for a hunt.
Besides the anthropoid shapes, there is also an obvious animal figure that resembles a serow, an antelope-like mammal found regionally.
This was in no way a serendipitous find—Ms Kanniga, one of the few archaeologists in Ratchaburi Fine Arts Department, and her small team set out to explore the unmapped grounds of the national park after a 2016 discovery. When she and her team stumbled across this gem, they had searched about 40 caves to no avail.