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Cave Art From the Past 350 Years Tells of Colonial Strife

The Bidayuh of Borneo took refuge in a grand cave and covered the inside with charcoal art.

By Matt Hrodey
Aug 29, 2023 3:00 PM
Rock art 2
The two carbon-dated figures. (Credit: Andrea Jalandoni)


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The extensive charcoal cave art at the Gura Sireh Cave on the island of Borneo appears to reflect decades of frontier violence, according to a new analysis.

Cave art continued in Southeast Asia until the relatively recent past, the new paper says. Scientists carbon-dated some of Gura Sireh’s drawings to a period between 1670 and 1830. At the time, the indigenous hill tribes, the Bidayuh, suffered at the hands of the local Malay elites, who ruled the countryside.

The cave art at Gura Sireh is only the tip of the iceberg for cave art in Southeast Asia, experts say. A similar tradition extends back about 3,500 years, while island cave art in the region dates to more than 45,500 years ago. That rivals the earliest examples ever found in Europe.

Mohammad Sherman Sauffi William and Jillian Huntley collect a charcoal sample inside the Gura Sireh Cave. (Credit: Paul S.C. Tacon)

What Did the Drawings Signify?

Gura Sireh contains about 100 feet of cave art, which also includes scenes of hunting, butchering, fishing and dancing. There are also long spears and shields and abstract geometric patterns.

The new paper zeroed in on two very large drawings, each greater than 30 inches long, that appear to show tall warriors holding weapons. The first figure represents a man wielding two traditional, knife-style Borneo Parang Ilang weapons. The second shows a man holding a case for a Parang, which the Bidayuh used for both agricultural tasks and headhunting.

The first warrior has a jagged outline, suggesting a headdress. Both are surrounded by smaller people, some of them standing on top of the larger people’s shoulders. The paper says the arrangement suggests that the central fighters were powerful warriors.

“We had clues about their age based on subjects such as introduced animals, but we really didn’t know how old they were. So it was difficult to interpret what they might mean,” said Paul Tacon, a professor at Griffith University, in a statement.

The team now understands that the dated drawings were made with bamboo charcoal during a time of increasing colonial tension. The Malay elites had received their authority to rule from the Brunei Sultanate, given their inroads in the region and control over the waterways.

Assault at the Cave

An incident from the early 1800s that was spoken of in the Bidayuh oral tradition is reflected in Gura Sireh’s art. According to Mohammad Sherman Sauffi William – a Bidayuh descendant and curator at The Sarawak Museum Department – the hill tribes used Gura Sireh as a refuge after a Malay chief demanded they hand over their children.

The chief’s forces marched to the cave with a force of 300 armed who attempted to enter the refuge from a lower valley. The Bidayuh fought back, and two were shot while seven were taken prisoner and enslaved.

“They saved their children when most of the tribe escaped through a passageway at the back of the largest entrance chamber, which leads hundreds of meters through the Gunung Nambi limestone hill,” William said in a statement.

Read More: 5 of the World’s Most Fascinating Cave Paintings

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