Maros Cave

Traces of Sulawesi’s early humans

The karst caves in Maros regency, South Sulawesi, are treasure troves holding a wealth of stories tens of thousands of years old. On the cave’s walls, the eternal traces of Sulawesi’s earliest inhabitants are found.

This photo was digitally edited by Toto Sihono

Opening treasure trove

It was past midday on Friday (16/3/2018) when Kompas stepped into the Leang Pettae cave in Leang-leang sub-district, Bantimurung district, Maros. Flashlights were pointed to the ceiling of the narrow and dark cave.

A drawing in red paint of a four-legged creature was seen. Though most of the surface inside the cave was covered in white stains, the drawing can be easily recognized as that of a babirusa.

Not far from there, on another part of the 2.5-meter-high cave ceiling, a number of hand stencils are found. The hand stencils were made by spraying paint on the palms, which are then put on the cave walls. This leaves behind hand prints on the walls.


Hand stencils are seen in the Leang Petta Kere prehistoric caves of Bantimurung district, Maros regency, South Sulawesi, in this picture taken on Friday (16/3/2018).

“Leang Pattae was the first cave in the Maros-Pangkep karst region found by archeologists to have prehistoric paintings, when CHM Heeren Palm conducted research here in 1950,” said Budianto Hakim, 53, an archeologist from the Makassar Archeology Center.

That day, Budianto was accompanying Kompas in venturing into several prehistoric caves in Maros, including Pettae. The caves are located in a karst region called Maros-Pangkep. Pangkep is an acronyum of Pangkajene and Kepulauan (Islands), which neighbors Maros to the north.

Palm’s research discovered prehistoric paintings in other caves in Maros, both by Palm himself and by other researchers such as HR van Heekeren and CHJ Franssen. Paintings were also found in caves including Leang Burung, Leang Jarie, Leang Lambattorang and Leang Petta Kere. “Leang” is a word in the local tongue that means “cave”.

The caves are located near one another. Leang Petta Kere, for instance, is only 50 m away from Leang Pettae. The two caves are now part of the Leang-leang Prehistoric Park managed by the South Sulawesi Cultural Heritage Preservation Center.

Budianto said that the latest data included around 230 caves in the Maros-Pangkep karst region. Around 80 caves are known to have prehistoric paintings. Some of the caves are located within the 43,700-hectare Bantimurung-Bulusaraung National Park.

“It remains possible that other caves are still to be discovered, as only around 10 percent of the Maros-Pangkep karst region is accessible,” Budianto said.

Regarding the many potential caves to be researched, Makassar Archeology Center head Irfan Mahmud said that the center would soon establish zones in the karst region. This is to ensure that all the caves can be included in the database, which can be used by the regency administration to facilitate region utilization.

“Currently, there are overlaps between business interests, especially mining, conservation and tourism. We have faced mining businesspeople several times when their mining licenses include areas within the conservation zone. This is why there has to be zonation,” Irfan said.

With a research-based zonation regulation, conservation areas will also be designated as prehistoric caves. Other parts can be developed for business. Research is also aimed at producing a more comprehensive karst region map.

Kompas/Hendra A Setyawan

The caves might have been used by ancient humans to survive, as food waste such as clam shells were found in Leang Bulu Sipong, Maros regency, South Sulawesi, as seen in this photo taken on Saturday. (21/9/2013).

Kompas/Eddy Hasby

The walls of Leang Lompoa, with its stalactites and stalagmites, in Pangkep, South Sulawesi, as seen in this photo taken on Sunday (5/8/2012). Many prehistoric paintings are found in cave walls in South Sulawesi.

The Oldest Painting in the World

Before 2014, no one knew for sure how old the paintings in the caves in Maros were. Experts estimated that they were less than 10,000 years old. However, a research paper published in noted international science journal Nature on October 9, 2014, changed everything.

The research was held in collaboration with experts from the Makassar Archeology Center, the South Sulawesi Cultural Heritage Preservation Center, University of Wollongong, Griffith University and Australian National University. The paper shocked the global archeology scene and was widely reported by international media.

The research revealed that one hand stencil in Leang Timpuseng was at least 39,900 years old. Leang Timpuseng is located in Kalabbirang subdistrict, Bantimurung district, some 3 kilometers away from the Leang-leang Prehistoric Park.

Several locations where prehistoric paintings are located


The estimated age of the hand stencil was measured using the uranium-series dating method. The method measures the age of coralloid speleothems, which are commonly referred to as “cave popcorn” as they look like small bumps similar to popped corn.

Coralloid grows on the surface of cave walls due to the hardening of layers of water and other minerals. The age of the coralloid can be measured through its diluted uranium content. This way, experts can find out the age of cave paintings on the surface of which coralloid grows.

In a press conference in Jakarta, research team head Adam Brumm from Australia’s University of Wollongong said that the revelation of the age of Maros’ cave paintings was highly important in unraveling the mysteries of prehistoric life in Indonesia around 40,000 years ago.

“Uranium-series dating is highly accurate. If carbon dating can only detect ages of up to around 40,000 years, uranium-series dating can detect ages of up to around 600,000 years,” Adam said (Kompas, 10/10/2014).

This new fact has a far-ranging impact as it changes our understanding on the journeys of modern humans (Homo sapiens) on the face of the Earth. Its age of 39,900 years old puts the Maros cave painting in the same age range as the paintings in El Castillo cave in Spain.

A disc-shaped painting in El Castillo is known as the world’s oldest painting. It is at least 40,800 years old. The El Castillo painting is often seen as the beginning of modern humans’ artistic skills before they spread to other parts of the world.

The finding in Timpuseng shows that similar skills were also apparent in humans in other parts of the world in the same – or even in a previous – era. Among findings of cave hand stencils, the one in Leang Timpuseng is believed to be the oldest in the world. Previously the record of the world’s oldest cave hand stencil was held by a 37,300-year-old artefact in El Castillo.

Just a few centimeters away from the hand stencil in Timpuseng, there is another faded painting. Researchers have ascertained that it is a painting of a babirusa. A uranium-series dating found it to be 35,400 years old.


A painting of a babirusa on the ceiling of Leang Timpuseng prehistoric cave in Bantimurung district, Maros, South Sulawesi, on Friday (16/3/2018). Archeological research in 2014 found that the painting was at least 35,400 years old, making it one of the oldest figurative paintings in the world.

At Leang Barugayya 2 cave, not far from Timpuseng, a painting believed to be of a pig is believed to be at least 35,700 years old. This makes the animal paintings on the caves in Maros among the oldest decorative paintings in the world.

The research took 19 coralloid samples from 14 paintings in nine caves in Bantimurung and Simbang districts. Other than Timpuseng and Barugayya 2, the samples were also taken from Leang Barugayya 1, Leang Jarie, Goa Jing, Leang Bulu Bettue, Leang Lompoa, Leang Burung 2 and Leang Sampeang.

Research shows that the paintings were between 17,400 and 39,900 years old. A majority of the paintings are more than 25,000 years old.

Arkenas and BPCB Makassar

A cave wall painting in Leang Timpuseng, Maros, South Sulawesi, recently preserved by the National Archeology Center.

Magic hands

Leang Timpuseng is located about 200 meters from the main road connecting Kalabbirang subdistrict and Leang-leang subdistrict in Bantimurung district, Maros. It is about 40 kilometers northeast of Makassar’s city center in South Sulawesi.

The cave is at the feet of a 100-m karst hill. Between the karst hill and the road are vast rice fields belonging to residents. The water spring from Leang Timpuseng serves as a water source for irrigation. In the local dialect, Leang Timpuseng means “cave of water spring”.

The cave is now under the management of the South Sulawesi Cultural Heritage Conservation Agency. When Kompas came to the location after the release of research into the age of cave paintings in 2014, Timpuseng was still open to the public.

It was in the small cave that the ancient artistic work, which surprised the world, was immortalized. The hand drawing and painting of two deer pigs was located on the 4-m-high ceiling, not far from the cave’s entrance. Although the two paintings are faded, they are still visible.


Front side of the prehistoric cave Leang Pettae at Bantimurung district, Maros, South Sulawesi, on Friday (16/3/2018). In this cave, researchers found prehistoric paintings for the first time at the Maros-Pangkep karst region in 1950.

The image of a hand is formed from the combination of the grey color of the rock surface and the black paint surrounding it. The images of the deer pigs were made using a kind of brush and paint, while the image of the hand was made using a different technique.

Makassar Archeology Agency archeologist Budianto Hakim said the painter used a spray technique, either with the help of a device or with the mouth. First, they collected hematite, mineral rocks containing red pigment.

The rocks were crushed and the red layers removed. The flour was then mixed with water to produce red paint.

“Then, the hand was pressed against the wall and the paint was sprayed on it, leaving the image of palm print,” said Budianto, who was also involved in the research to determine the age of the ancient paintings.


Makassar Archeology Agency archeologist Budianto Hakim was showing a hematite, a mineral rock containing red pigment, found somewhere around Leang Timpuseng at Bantimurung district, Maros, South Sulawesi, on Friday (16/3/2018). Hematite was used as paint material for prehistoric people.

The patterns of these prehistoric paintings varied. There are the single paintings at Timpuseng, random groups at Leang Pettae and Leang Petta Kere, and lines at Leang Lompoa. The paintings are mostly on places that are difficult to reach.

The hand sketch at Leang Burung 1 is the most extreme example. There are two images at different locations on the ceiling, which is at least 10 m high.


Animation to illustrate the making of prehistoric painting at Leang-leang in Maros, South Sulawesi. The prehistoric painting was made by spraying paint made of crushed rocks onto a hand that was pressed against the wall. The human featured in this animation, does not represent real condition at that time.

Then what is the meaning of those images or paintings?

Budianto predicted that the hand paintings are part of a ritual to provide protection for the inhabitants of the cave from curses and other negative occurrences. He said they might have been created before man understood the concept of God or a higher being to ask for help.

The prediction was supported with the findings of several caves with paintings that were not occupied by humans. Such caves are located at the top of the hill and are difficult to access. They are also situated from food sources and river. Furthermore, no waste was found, such as animal bones or shells that were commonly found around caves inhabited by human.

It means those caves have particular functions, one of which is to perform ritual practices related to those paintings.“So, human at that time used rituals to unify their community,” Budianto said.

Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) researcher Pindi Setiawan said those prehistoric paintings showed the advanced skills of early humans living in the archipelago. Aside from Maros, Pindi has also researched cave paintings in East Kalimantan.

From his assessment, the men producing the paintings considered layout, lighting and points of view to produce the arts.

The ITB visual communication and multimedia lecturer also said the paintings were not mute drawings, but a process that involved all of the painter’s senses.

“There are cave paintings that are important visually, but there are also paintings that are important in their creation, such as the use of prayers during the painting process,” Pindi said. These were produced in high numbers and located in high places.

Why was the painting important? Pindi predicted it was related to the religious system of the painter at that time. In this sense, the hand painting functioned as a medium of communication with another world that existed with the real world.

Meanwhile, regarding the painting of animals, Pindi said it was an expression of the animal that was respected and considered to have special features at that time. “It was also related to the religious value of humans at that time,” he said.

Budianto added that the handprint painting culture continued until the arrival of the Austronesia-speaking humans to Sulawesi 4,000 years ago. Austronesia-speaking humans are one of the forefathers of the Indonesian nation.

Moreover, Budianto said in Buginese culture, hand painting is part of the Ma’bedda Bola tradition, which means putting cosmetics on the house. That tradition is a ritual to celebrate a new house, bless the inhabitant and protect them from evil.

The ritual was usually led by a sanro (community leader) who walked around the house while uttering prayers. Then, he would soak his hand into a mix of water and rice flour before pressing his palm onto the wall or pillar of the house. The handprint will be left as it is for years.

“This may be a form of knowledge from the prehistoric era to the present time,” Budianto said.

However, the Ma’bedda Bola tradition is now difficult to find, said Lahab, 54, a resident of Kalabbirang subdistrict and caretaker of the Leang-leang Prehistoric Park.

“In the past, when my parents entered a new house, they performed this ritual. I also performed the same ritual for my house. I did not know what it meant exactly. Essentially, it was a ritual to protect the inhabitants from misfortune,” Lahab said.

Journal Nature repro

A black painting (left) from the Austronesian era at Leang Bulu Bettue, and the image of a hand as indicated by the arrow.

Journal Nature repro

A painting of a hand in Leang Jarie (left), and a coralloid speleothem, which is often referred to cave popcorn for its shape that resembles popcorn. Experts have identified the age of the painting, which was made from coralloid.

Journal Nature repro

A prehistoric painting of a deer pig (left) at Leang Timpuseng, and coralloid speleothem from the cave wall where the painting of a deer pig was found. Experts have successfully aged the painting, which was made with coralloid

Journal Nature repro

A prehistoric painting of an animal (left) at Leang Barugayya, and a coralloid speleothem. Experts have successfully aged the painting, which was made with coralloid.

Repro dari jurnal Nature

A painting of an amputated hand (left) at Leang Lompoa, and a coralloid speleothem on the wall where the previous painting was found. Experts have successfully aged the painting, which was made with coralloid.

Tracking down the artist

The karst caves in Maros-Pangkep, South Sulawesi, are believed to have been the prehistoric home of the Austromelanesoid people long before Austronesian speakers ever set foot in the region. The Austromelanesoid people are early Homo sapiens believed to have migrated from Africa to the archipelago, including Sulawesi, around 60,000 years ago.

However, no physical evidence in the form of human bones dating back to the era has been found in caves in Maros or other regions in Sulawesi. This remains a huge mystery for archeologists to solve.

New evidence was discovered in 2015. At the time, a team from the Makassar Archeology Agency chaired by Budianto Hakim unearthed a human skull and three molars at the Bala Metti prehistoric cave in Pattuku village, Bontocani district, Bone regency.

Based on the context of cultural layers and tools found on the site, Budianto strongly believed that the skull belonged to an Austromelanesoid human who lived 11,700 to 60,000 years ago. The cave in Bone has similar characteristics to the karst caves in Maros, including walls adorned with prehistoric paintings.

Nevertheless, any sense of certainty will have to wait for the completion of a still-ongoing research. If proven, the skull will be the first discovery of bones belonging to early Homo sapiens who lived in Sulawesi (Kompas, 29/4/2015).

At the same time, efforts to trace the early humans of Sulawesi are ongoing in Maros. The revelation of the age of a cave painting in Leang Timpuseng in 2014 was just one part of a series of important excavations and research conducted by Indonesian and Australian researchers since 2013.


A prehistoric painting in one of the Maros caves, South Sulawesi.

One of the main goals of this research is to discover Sulawesi’s early settlers and the “artists” who made the prehistoric paintings. Therefore, the research went on until 2017.

The research was focused on Leang Bulu Bettue in Bantimurung district, Maros, just 1 kilometer away from Leang Timpuseng. A number of prints and evidence have led archeologists to excavate the cave.

In 2016, they found prehistoric jewelries some 30,000 years old in the cave. The jewelries comprised earrings and beads made from the teeth and bones of endemic mammals in Sulawesi, such as babirusa and bear cuscus. This has been claimed as the oldest pieces of jewelry to have been discovered in Indonesia.

The findings boosted archeologists’ spirits. They are now more convinced than ever that they are getting closer to discovering the remnants of the very first settler of Sulawesi.

“We are lucky as, in our research, around 90 percent of old deposits are still trapped in the caves. In 2017, we dug deeper and in a wider area on the cave’s walls,” Budiato said.

The location was chosen because human fossils had always been found on the peripheries of cave walls. “In the past, the deceased were treated with care and placed on higher and safer parts of the wall,” Budianto said.

The excavation was temporarily stopped in September 2017. The findings were taken to Australia and several other countries for further research. The results will determine whether or not the excavation will continue. They may also provide answers to several big mysteries.

Kompas/Reny Sri Ayu

Researchers and archeologist helped by students gathered soil and rocks from Leang Bulu Bettue at Maros karst region in order to find traces of prehistoric people who are related to a 40.000 years old painting found nearby on 19 September 2017. Excavation in this area involved researchers and archaeologists from Australias and Indonesia.


Prehistoric rock tools found in caves at Maros-Pangkep karst region kept in Makassar Archeologist Agency, South Sulawesi, as seen on Friday (16/3/2018)

Kerabat Kerja

writer: Reny Sri Ayu, Mohamad Final Daeng | photographers: Mohamad Final Daeng, Aloysius Budi Kurniawan, Reny Sri Ayu, Eddy Hasby, Hendra A Setyawan | videographer: Mohamad Final Daeng | video editor: Antonius Sunardi | animator: Toto Sihono | parallax: Toto Sihono | infographics: Dimas Tri Adiyanto, Dicky Indratno | language editor: Hibar Himawan | web designers: Yulius Giann, Elga Yuda Pranata | producers: Prasetyo Eko Prihananto, Haryo Damardono

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