Unlike other examples of
rock art in the world, the cave paintings recently discovered in Borneo
by a CNRS team are not only evidence of rituals; they are also perfectly
designed esthetic works. In a style similar to that of body art, the Gua
Tewet cave, discovered in May 1999, provides a combination of negative
handprints designed with a clear pattern in mind. In light of ethnographic
literature, this new group of paintings seems to represent an initiatory
journey or a clan, family, or territorial bond. The paintings also
evoke a style of pictorial culture similar to that of the Aborigines of
Australia. Borneo has a wealth of rock art and will be the subject of
another reconnaissance mission this year.
The discovery of rock art in
Borneo in 1994 was unexpected. It gave rise to a series of expeditions,*
including one in May last year to a cave of major importance, Gua
Tewet. Approximately one hundred and seventy-five negative handprints,
some of which are intertwined, were inventoried; some thirty added symbols
make each one distinctive. The symbols are painted inside the hands and
are unlike any other rock art in the world. The fact that the organized
pattern of these hands on the wall was made with human breath, and therefore
relied on an oral technique, is highly symbolic.
For prehistorians using ethnographic liturgy as their reference,
the negative handprints reveal a cultural heritage that is common to all
primitive communities. These communities were already using an operative
chain of specific gestures much more complex than a mere positive print.
The generic symbolism of the
art has inspired a wide range of hypotheses, including magic practices,
invocation rituals and the appropriation of chthonian forces, and initiatory
or therapeutic practices from the world of shamanism.
The example of the ornate Gua Tewet cave contains original features. First,
symbols have been added on the inside of the negative handprints and,
second, they are arranged in a tree-like shape that is different from
that of the other caves discovered previously, where movements are circular.
The pattern used in Gua Tewet is very probably the intentional expression
of a bond of family, clan, or even territorial continuity.
Beyond the incantatory action, what seems to be new in Gua Tewet is the
systematic repetition of the negative handprint, apparently indissociable
from esthetic concerns. Sometimes, the negative hand underlines certain
spindly or filigreed animal figures. In other cases, and for some handprints,
the added dots resemble an "X-ray" representation of a skeleton.
Thanks to the wealth of these representations, it is possible to make
an analogy, or at least a tenuous link, with certain paintings by the
Aborigines of Australia. It is now possible to envisage that some of the
people that ultimately colonized Australia during the Pleistocene settled
in Borneo. The absence of ceramics, as well as previous discoveries on
the island by CNRS researchers, indicates that these paintings date from
the pre-Austronesian era and are probably more than 6,000 years old.
The theory of cultural polygeneticism, however, cannot be completely ruled
out. This hypothesis holds that groups with no past or present blood ties
invented similar practices in their means of expression.
It will therefore be necessary to identify other factors in order to confirm
any possible cultural parallelism between continental Asia and the Australian
subcontinent. A new expedition, planned for this year, will attempt to
find such elements.
* an initial
series of paintings was discovered in Gua Mardua in Borneo in 1994. Others
were found in the caves of Liang Sara in 1995 and, most significantly,
in Gua Masri and Ilas Kenceng in 1998.
Maison Asie-Pacifique / CNRS
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CNRS - Stéphanie Bia
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