Press release

Rock Art in Borneo: A Blast from the Past that Marks the Start of a Unique Means of Expression

Paris, February 22, 2000


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.

Researcher Contact:
Jean-Michel Chazine
Maison Asie-Pacifique / CNRS
Tel : + 33 (0)4 90 74 44 66
Fax (T/F) : + 33 (0)4 90 74 44 66
E-mail :
NB : photos are available from the researcher or on the web site mentioned above

Press Contact:
CNRS - Stéphanie Bia
Tel : + 33 (0)1 44 96 43 09
Fax : + 33 (0)1 44 96 49 93
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