South Sulawesi’s ancient secrets
The outboard motor thundered and kicked up a fountain of spray as it propelled us between rows of water palms, their luxuriant fronds aglow in the early morning light. Just one and a half hours outside Makassar, the provincial capital of South Sulawesi and the largest city in eastern Indonesia, we were cruising a placid green river in search of karsts and prehistoric handprints.
Bama and I had boarded the longboat below a small concrete bridge, in view of a high-tension power line running parallel to the main road heading north from Makassar. Neither of us had predicted how quickly the scenery would change once we got on the water. The meandering river soon took on a maze-like quality, with smaller channels coming off the main waterway and towering karsts at every turn. Eventually the banks closed in and we found ourselves floating through a natural tunnel.
Emerging from the darkness, the boatman steered us further upriver and into a narrow stretch flanked by forbidding walls of limestone. A shaft of blue sky lay directly above our heads, then sunlight flooded the scene as the river opened up once more. The presence of a small wooden jetty – and the sputtering noise of the motor as it faded into silence – signalled our arrival in the heart of Rammang-Rammang.
The foliage at the water’s edge gave way to a parched valley hemmed in by karst formations. After a fruitless search for signs leading to the ancient handprints, Bama approached two villagers to ask for directions. A young man – who we found lying in the shade under a canopy beside his stilt house – merely said it was “over there”, where there were many trees. Another resident was more straightforward, pointing out a tall coconut palm in the distance where the pathway between the paddy fields dissolved amid a clump of greenery. “Enter there,” she said, “and turn left.”
Following the first villager’s advice, we had left the open fields, making for the nearby foliage until the path suddenly widened into a well-trodden clearing devoid of any tangled undergrowth. It continued up the slope and into a place where the cliff was overhung. For the early settlers of Sulawesi, this would have been a logical place to set up camp.
The words of the second villager led us back the same way, and Bama went ahead past the coconut tree. I followed, emerging from behind a stout, lonely pillar of pockmarked limestone to see him standing beside two dark red handprints, clear as day against the pale rock. We had previously wandered here looking for clues, and yet we had seen only found cobwebs, a wall of unmortared stones stacked atop one another, and a small wooden shelter buttressed against the cliff – its roof half-obscured by several bundles of hay. Though we’d picked out the crude ‘TRI’ further along the rock face, possibly scratched in by a self-important teenager, Bama and I had neglected to see this prehistoric art.
Protected from the harsh light of the tropical sun, the pair of unequal handprints had outlived its makers by thousands of years. I laid my right hand on top of the larger print, resting it lightly against the cool rock. Though my fingers are small it still dwarfed those of my ancient counterpart. We do not know the identity of these artists, or why they had left their mark on these limestone walls. Perhaps the prints had a spiritual significance, or they merely implied a sense of occupancy and belonging, the way we decorate our living rooms with framed photographs. Whatever the reason, they were proof that our ancestors had learned to paint long before the development of a coherent writing system.
These handprints are by no means the oldest in Rammang-Rammang. The steersman of our longboat spoke of a cave far from the river that contained many more examples. A recent article in an Indonesian magazine likened the cave to a prehistoric art gallery, hidden in a mountain over 1,000 steps above the valley floor. Within its dark chambers, scientists had discovered hand stencils and depictions of babirusa, wild boar with impressive, upward-curving tusks that still roam parts of Sulawesi to this day. A 2014 study of the caves in this rural area (known as Maros-Pangkep) found that its paintings were between 17,400 to 39,900 years old, making them some of the oldest known examples of cave art ever found.
Journeying to those mountain caves would have necessitated staying overnight in a village house and several hours of hiking, using time we did not have. But the sight of those two handprints – and the magical boat ride – was enough reason to make the trip. ◊