Twenty-six red-and-white hand prints are plastered across the roof of the Leang Petta Kere cave in the Bantimurung subdistrict of Maros, South Sulawesi. At its center is a painting of a red boar, spanning half a meter in length. Apparently the cave’s previous inhabitants expected a pretty big meal to keep everyone fed.
“This is a relic of the middle Stone Age people, hunter gatherers who lived here around 5,000 BCE,” says Lahab, an official from the Makassar Center for Cultural and Heritage Preservation, at the Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park.
In the native dialect, “leang” means “cave,” “petta” means “nobility,” and “kere” is “sacred”: so Noble, Sacred Cave.
Leang Petta Kere is one of about a hundred caves that have been identified by the Makassar Center for Cultural and Heritage Preservation as once being home to hunter gatherers.
Visiting this ancient site, 45 meters above sea level and a 30-meter climb up a ladder, feels surreal, almost like looking through a window into the life of prehistoric men.
At the entrance to the cave forms a sort of antechamber, and it is here where the palm prints are found. “The palm was believed to repel, so that evil forces and wild animals wouldn’t enter,” Lahab says.
The prints themselves are a dirty white, like the rest of the cave walls, and are outlined by a red halo. It’s believed that the people who created the prints put their hands up against the wall and spit chewed-up foliage to create the outlines.
Some of the prints are red, supposedly created by dipping the hand in water tinted with the chewed-up leaves and stamping them on the wall.
“Researchers still don’t know what kind of leaves were used. In another cave, not in this region, black handprints have been found. Those are thought to have come from a later period than these ones,” Lahab says.
Some handprints have only four fingers and no thumb — “a sign that the person was mourning. They cut off one finger every time an elder of the group died,” Lahab says.
The cave holds many surprises. At the end of a narrow entrance lies a fairly spacious living space. A niche about 1.2 meters in diameter is believed to have been the center of ceremonies for the cave’s inhabitants.
There are dozens of other smaller niches, all connected to one another and forming a network of resting places. Inside, the cave protected the prehistoric humans from the scorching sun. The temperature inside remains a pleasant 27 degrees Celsius throughout the day.
“This cave was occupied by several different groups. One group consisted of 30 to 35 people,” Lahab says.
Archaeologist have found artifacts such as flint blades and stone arrowheads. As hunter gatherers, the cave people had a mountain of kitchen waste, a dump for the bones and shells of the animals they are. These fossilized remains are scattered at the mouth of a second cave, called Leang Pettae.
The latter was the first cave to be studied from among the hundred or so in the Maros Karst-Pangkep region. Here, five handprints were found along with a smaller image of a boar impaled with an spear. One of the five palms is though to belong to a woman, Lahab says.
The exploration of the cave began in 1950 by Dutch archaeologists, who stumbled upon the caves that locals had been using to house their livestock.
Finding the caves today is easy. The region boasts the world’s longest limestone mountain range, or karst landscape, and has caves scattered everywhere.
The local residents have for years used these caves.
“When I was little the caves were a place to keep our cattle. Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park was once a rice field that also belonged to the locals. I’ve worked here as a caretaker since 1985, after it was designated a cultural heritage park,” says the 51-year-old Lahab.
A resident of Tompok Balang village in Bantimurung subdistrict, Lahab says the tradition of making handprints is still carried out by local residents, notably when the first beam of a new house is erected.
A priest dips his hand in rice flour and stamps his print on the beam, with the owner of the house following suit.
“This tradition is called ambedak, or applying face powder. The hand print fades away quickly because they only use rice flour,” Lahab says.
Large chunks of limestone and andesite, a volcanic rock, are scattered irregularly around Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park. But a closer look reveals that they are laid out almost like the rocks of Stonehenge in England.
“Many foreign tourist from Britain and Australia are interested in the andesite stones. Since I was little, the stones have been laid out like this; no one dared move them,” Lahab says.
The Leang-Leang cave is easily reachable from Makassar, the South Sulawesi capital about 30 kilometers to the south.
Visiting Leang-Leang offers a new sensation for those bored of the daily traffic jams of Makassar’s busy streets. The road out of town is lined with beautiful irrigation canals and rows of tamarind trees, which bear fruit in April and June.
After passing through the main gate to Leang-Leang, the scenery becomes very different. The tamarind groves give way to rice fields and limestone foothills. The water seeping through the limestone filters down to the rice paddies.
Entry into the park costs Rp 10,000 (84 cents), and there you can find Lahab and six other guides all ready to show you around and regale you with tales of what it must have been like 7,000 years ago.
And unlike the cave inhabitants who needed a whole hog, the guides will gladly settle for a bowl of meatball soup as a tip at the end of the tour.