SE Asia’s oldest rock carving found by surprise

By Aaron Smith 15 February 2011
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While searching for giant rat fossils, scientists have stumbled on the oldest rock carvings in southeast Asia.

THE SEARCH FOR GIANT rat fossils in East Timor has led scientists to the surprise discovery of ancient stone carvings of faces.

CSIRO biologist Dr Ken Aplin, along with a team of palaeontologists, was crawling around the floor of Lene Hara Cave in search of fossilised rat bones when he spotted the carvings or petroglyphs in the light of his head lamp.

“I just happened to look up and saw this incredible face,” he says.

Ken then shone his torch around to discover a total of six stylised faces, one of which has a circular headdress of rays and was later named the ‘sun-ray face.’

Traditional landowners shocked at rock-carving discovery

This rugged, hilly region of north-eastern East Timor is covered in jungle and riddled with limestone caves similar to Lene Hara. But while this cave has been excavated and explored several times since Portuguese anthropologists first documented painted rock motifs in the early 1960s, no one had ever noticed the face carvings.

Australian National University archaeologist Professor Sue O’Conner was with Ken when he made his discovery in May 2009. “I was very surprised. We must have walked past them hundreds of times,” Sue says. “It’s very dark inside the cave and it wasn’t until Ken just happened to shine his torch up and said, ‘Wow, that looks like a face’, [that they were found].”

Sue was was involved in excavations in the cave in 2000 that uncovered bone, stone and pottery artefacts dating back to 35,000 years

Ken says even the traditional landowners were in shock. “They had been entering the caves their entire lives, as had their fathers and grandfathers, without ever seeing them,” he says. “The elders decided it was the spirit of their ancestors that appeared as a good omen for the research we were conducting.”

It appears the carvings were formed by a series of drilling and pecking actions and may have been formed by a two part manufacturing process that involved abrasion following the pecking and drilling to create a continuous groove. However, it is unclear if this is due to subsequent weathering.

The scientists were surprised, though, at the good condition of these carvings, which represent the only known petroglyphs on the island of Timor and the oldest rock carving in southeast Asia, dating back to the Pleistocene.

“We were exceptionally lucky that the carvings have survived all these years and that we chanced upon them. We were also lucky in that we could date the rock at 12,000 years, as well as being able to date weathering that had occurred after the carvings were made at 10,000 years – giving us a very defined period in which they were made,” says Ken.

Rock-art connections between SE Asia and Australia?

The style of the Lene Hara carvings is distinctly different to other cave art in the area. The faces are located deeper into the caves and sport complex motifs that combine figurative and geometric elements, some of which have similarities with cave art in the Gulf region of New Guinea and northern Australia.

“These petroglyphs are visually very similar, artistically, to the ‘archaic faces’ carved in sandstone across the arid zone of Australia’s Pilbara region. The big difference with the Lene Hara petroglyphs is that they are carved in limestone and, unlike the archaic faces, we were able to date them to 10,000 to 12,000 years ago using Uranium isotopes,” Sue says.

Anthropological archaeologist Dr Liam Brady from the University of Western Australia specialises in rock art. He says, “the discovery and dating of the rare engraved faces is certainly significant to archaeologists in southeast Asia and Australia, as it has the potential to shed more light on possible shared rock-art traditions of considerable antiquity.”

Liam says its too early to say that the carvings are connected to Australia’s archaic faces, he thinks the Lene Hara discovery opens up a possbility. ‘We need to build on this find and continue to explore the southeast Asian region for more undiscovered rock-art evidence that has the potential to connect the two regions,” he says.

The research is published in the journal Antiquity.