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A tale of prehistoric horses in South Sulawesi

  • Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka, Contributor

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Tue, December 8, 2015 | 10:33 am
A tale of prehistoric horses in South Sulawesi A horse painting in Liang Kobori (Cave of Inscription) in Muna Island, Southeast Sulawesi." border="0" height="427" width="637">A horse painting in Liang Kobori (Cave of Inscription) in Muna Island, Southeast Sulawesi.

Horses have been the most influential animal in the development of human civilization. If one had to decide on three things that ushered in the dawn of human civilization, certainly they would be the creation of the alphabet, the discovery of the wheel and the domestication of the horse. As emphasized by geographer and sociologist Alfred Weber, the widespread domestication of the horse for riding and hauling carriages was the catalyst for the blooming of what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age (die Achsenzeit) from the 8th to the 2nd century BC.

The importance of this period for humanity was the rise of idealists, poets and philosophers, and the formation of the world’s major religions that remain influential today.

The teachings of the Zarathustra, compiled in the Avesta texts, spread in Persia. In Greece, philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle debated and disseminated their teachings.

In the Indian sub-continent Sidharta Gautama, Mahavira and the thinkers of the Upanishads wandered the land. In China, there were Lao Tse, Mo Tsu and Khong Hu Cu. In the Middle East, several Jewish prophets came to proselytize and announce their prophecies in the city walls, and hundreds of years later inspire the formation of study groups that were the early beginnings of Christianity and Islam.

Their world view and the other products of their revolutionary thinking swiftly spread far and wide thanks to horses.

The great contribution of the horse was not merely due to its capacity to carry the weight of people, but also to simultaneously bridge diverse thinking and imagination.

Records from 3,000 years ago mention that the horse riders who dominated the steppes of Central Asia and Eastern Europe regarded the backs of their horses as their domain, their universe  — their lives took place on the backs of their horses  —  the ate, slept and fought from there.

Astride a horse, people gained a greater sense of confidence, and their attitude toward space and time became more dynamic. The progression from walking to horseback riding is similar to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the face of the moon: both enabled the birth of a new age in the development of human thinking and spiritual life.

A horse painting in Kobori Cave, Southeast Sulawesi.A horse painting in Kobori Cave, Southeast Sulawesi.

In the not-so-distant past, horses were very important for many Indonesian people as a vehicle for transportation. I still remember, from my childhood in South Sulawesi, horses were an extension of the hands, and especially the feet, of almost everyone. Without horses, people’s reach was very limited; they couldn’t haul or exchange their produce to places far away, or meet geographically distant friends or relatives to share their pain and joy.

In the Barru regency neighborhood in which I was born, you could say that every house, most of which were wooden houses on stilts, kept at least one horse whose stall was often directly attached to the house, underneath the floor. The girls looked after the two-legged animals (geese, ducks and chickens) and the boys took care of the four legged creatures (horses, buffalos, cattle, goats and dogs).

Horses were once thought to have come to the Indonesian archipelago around the 13th century along with the arrival of the until-then invincible fleet of the Yuan Dynasty from China founded by Kublai Khan. The descendants of the mounted cavalry that established the largest empire in history came to impose their imperial supremacy on the Archipelago, specifically on Java, which was at the time witnessing the fall of the Singasari kingdom.

That mighty army was driven back to the sea by Raden Wijaya’s troops, who later established the Majapahit kingdom. In their retreat, the armada left many high-quality war horses behind. The descendants of those war horses still roam the Dieng Plateau and appear very similar to Mongolian horses.

But the perception that horses were first brought to the archipelago by the Mongol armada is a grave error. Horses were already found in the archipelago centuries before the arrival of the armies from the north. Borobudur and Prambanan Temples, built around the 9th century, are decorated with several panels depicting horses.

Outside of Java, historical remains and cultural artifacts featuring horses can be found in many places.

In North Sumatra, especially in the Batak area, horses have been a part of society since the establishment of megalithic cultures. In a number of places in the clustered islands of Nusa Tenggara or Lesser Sunda, the horse still has a strong presence and remains a cherished part of people’s cultural identity.

A hand stencil in Leang leang Cave in Maros,  South Sulawesi.A hand stencil in Leang leang Cave in Maros, South Sulawesi.

Interestingly, the oldest record of a horse in the archipelago was found not in Java, Sumatra or in the Lesser Sunda Islands, but in Sulawesi.

In a cave called Kobori on Muna Island, Southeast Sulawesi, which the locals called Liang Kabori (Cave of Inscription), depictions of horses, kites and many other things were found, spread over 130 individual red paintings from the entrance to the deepest part of the cave. The painting of the kites led German aerial photograph consultant Wolfgong Bick to conduct research, from which he concluded that Muna Island was the birthplace of the oldest-known kite culture in the world.

The paintings of the Kobori Cave instantly remind on of the paintings of horses and all sorts of four-legged creatures that grace the walls of the Lascaux and Perche-Merle Caves in France or the Altamira in Spain. These prehistoric images from Europe have long been regarded as the oldest paintings in the world. However, the discovery regarding the age of the cave paintings in Sulawesi have altered that belief and renewed speculation on many things, particularly around the history of art and the roots of the human creativity.

Not far from Muna Island, about 250 kilometers to the west, in the Leang-Leang Cave in Maros regency, South Sulawesi, another cluster of caves with ancient paintings was found. A joint research project between Indonesia’s National Centre for Archaeology, the University of Wollongong and Griffith University (Australia), the Archaeological Heritage Preservation Institute and the Center for Archaeology in Makassar, South Sulawesi, provided new information about the age of these wall-paintings.

In October last year, a number of the most popular scientific publications in the world announced the findings of research using a uranium-series dating method that put the age of the paintings on the wall of Leang-Leang Cave in Maros at around 35,000 to 40,000 years old. The journal Nature, in its October edition that year featured the findings as its cover story, with the title “Ice Age Art in the Tropics”.

The prehistoric paintings on the walls of caves in Western Europe are estimated to be around 35,000 to 40,000 years old. The horse paintings on the walls of the Lascaux caves are estimated to be around 17,300 years old. So, the prehistoric paintings in Maros are in fact the same age as the cave paintings in Europe.

One of the paintings in Maros, a hand stencil, is the oldest visual art work of its type found in the world. And a pig-deer painting next to the hand stencil has been concluded to be the oldest figurative painting in the world. These discoveries certainly put to rest the Eurocentrism of the ancient art profession, that until now claimed that Europe was the birthplace of visual art, and the Lascaux Caves, El Castillo and Altamira were the witnesses to this birth.

The age of the paintings in Maros has also led experts to conclude that Europe and Asia developed visual art at roughly the same time, and that visual art has even deeper roots beginning in Africa.

A megalithic horse statue in Balige, North Sumatra. (Photo courtesy of Tropen Museum)

A horse painting in Liang Kobori (Cave of Inscription) in Muna Island, Southeast Sulawesi.

Horses have been the most influential animal in the development of human civilization. If one had to decide on three things that ushered in the dawn of human civilization, certainly they would be the creation of the alphabet, the discovery of the wheel and the domestication of the horse. As emphasized by geographer and sociologist Alfred Weber, the widespread domestication of the horse for riding and hauling carriages was the catalyst for the blooming of what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age (die Achsenzeit) from the 8th to the 2nd century BC.

The importance of this period for humanity was the rise of idealists, poets and philosophers, and the formation of the world'€™s major religions that remain influential today.

The teachings of the Zarathustra, compiled in the Avesta texts, spread in Persia. In Greece, philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle debated and disseminated their teachings.

In the Indian sub-continent Sidharta Gautama, Mahavira and the thinkers of the Upanishads wandered the land. In China, there were Lao Tse, Mo Tsu and Khong Hu Cu. In the Middle East, several Jewish prophets came to proselytize and announce their prophecies in the city walls, and hundreds of years later inspire the formation of study groups that were the early beginnings of Christianity and Islam.

Their world view and the other products of their revolutionary thinking swiftly spread far and wide thanks to horses.

The great contribution of the horse was not merely due to its capacity to carry the weight of people, but also to simultaneously bridge diverse thinking and imagination.

Records from 3,000 years ago mention that the horse riders who dominated the steppes of Central Asia and Eastern Europe regarded the backs of their horses as their domain, their universe '€Š'€” their lives took place on the backs of their horses '€Š'€” '€Šthe ate, slept and fought from there.

Astride a horse, people gained a greater sense of confidence, and their attitude toward space and time became more dynamic. The progression from walking to horseback riding is similar to Neil Armstrong'€™s first steps on the face of the moon: both enabled the birth of a new age in the development of human thinking and spiritual life.

A horse painting in Kobori Cave, Southeast Sulawesi.A horse painting in Kobori Cave, Southeast Sulawesi.

In the not-so-distant past, horses were very important for many Indonesian people as a vehicle for transportation. I still remember, from my childhood in South Sulawesi, horses were an extension of the hands, and especially the feet, of almost everyone. Without horses, people'€™s reach was very limited; they couldn'€™t haul or exchange their produce to places far away, or meet geographically distant friends or relatives to share their pain and joy.

In the Barru regency neighborhood in which I was born, you could say that every house, most of which were wooden houses on stilts, kept at least one horse whose stall was often directly attached to the house, underneath the floor. The girls looked after the two-legged animals (geese, ducks and chickens) and the boys took care of the four legged creatures (horses, buffalos, cattle, goats and dogs).

Horses were once thought to have come to the Indonesian archipelago around the 13th century along with the arrival of the until-then invincible fleet of the Yuan Dynasty from China founded by Kublai Khan. The descendants of the mounted cavalry that established the largest empire in history came to impose their imperial supremacy on the Archipelago, specifically on Java, which was at the time witnessing the fall of the Singasari kingdom.

That mighty army was driven back to the sea by Raden Wijaya'€™s troops, who later established the Majapahit kingdom. In their retreat, the armada left many high-quality war horses behind. The descendants of those war horses still roam the Dieng Plateau and appear very similar to Mongolian horses.

But the perception that horses were first brought to the archipelago by the Mongol armada is a grave error. Horses were already found in the archipelago centuries before the arrival of the armies from the north. Borobudur and Prambanan Temples, built around the 9th century, are decorated with several panels depicting horses.

Outside of Java, historical remains and cultural artifacts featuring horses can be found in many places.

In North Sumatra, especially in the Batak area, horses have been a part of society since the establishment of megalithic cultures. In a number of places in the clustered islands of Nusa Tenggara or Lesser Sunda, the horse still has a strong presence and remains a cherished part of people'€™s cultural identity.

A hand stencil in Leang leang Cave in Maros,  South Sulawesi.A hand stencil in Leang leang Cave in Maros, South Sulawesi.

Interestingly, the oldest record of a horse in the archipelago was found not in Java, Sumatra or in the Lesser Sunda Islands, but in Sulawesi.

In a cave called Kobori on Muna Island, Southeast Sulawesi, which the locals called Liang Kabori (Cave of Inscription), depictions of horses, kites and many other things were found, spread over 130 individual red paintings from the entrance to the deepest part of the cave. The painting of the kites led German aerial photograph consultant Wolfgong Bick to conduct research, from which he concluded that Muna Island was the birthplace of the oldest-known kite culture in the world.

The paintings of the Kobori Cave instantly remind on of the paintings of horses and all sorts of four-legged creatures that grace the walls of the Lascaux and Perche-Merle Caves in France or the Altamira in Spain. These prehistoric images from Europe have long been regarded as the oldest paintings in the world. However, the discovery regarding the age of the cave paintings in Sulawesi have altered that belief and renewed speculation on many things, particularly around the history of art and the roots of the human creativity.

Not far from Muna Island, about 250 kilometers to the west, in the Leang-Leang Cave in Maros regency, South Sulawesi, another cluster of caves with ancient paintings was found. A joint research project between Indonesia'€™s National Centre for Archaeology, the University of Wollongong and Griffith University (Australia), the Archaeological Heritage Preservation Institute and the Center for Archaeology in Makassar, South Sulawesi, provided new information about the age of these wall-paintings.

In October last year, a number of the most popular scientific publications in the world announced the findings of research using a uranium-series dating method that put the age of the paintings on the wall of Leang-Leang Cave in Maros at around 35,000 to 40,000 years old. The journal Nature, in its October edition that year featured the findings as its cover story, with the title '€œIce Age Art in the Tropics'€.

The prehistoric paintings on the walls of caves in Western Europe are estimated to be around 35,000 to 40,000 years old. The horse paintings on the walls of the Lascaux caves are estimated to be around 17,300 years old. So, the prehistoric paintings in Maros are in fact the same age as the cave paintings in Europe.

One of the paintings in Maros, a hand stencil, is the oldest visual art work of its type found in the world. And a pig-deer painting next to the hand stencil has been concluded to be the oldest figurative painting in the world. These discoveries certainly put to rest the Eurocentrism of the ancient art profession, that until now claimed that Europe was the birthplace of visual art, and the Lascaux Caves, El Castillo and Altamira were the witnesses to this birth.

The age of the paintings in Maros has also led experts to conclude that Europe and Asia developed visual art at roughly the same time, and that visual art has even deeper roots beginning in Africa.

A megalithic horse statue in Balige, North Sumatra. (Photo courtesy of Tropen Museum)A megalithic horse statue in Balige, North Sumatra. (Photo courtesy of Tropen Museum)

Thus far, it seems there is yet to be any scientific investigation of the horse paintings in the Liang Kobori. If the Kobori painting is the same age as the Leang-Leang paintings, and therefore the Kobori paintings are older than the Lascaux paintings, the implications are even more interesting.

The age difference of the Kobori and Lascaux horse cannot be determined at this point. However, what can be suggested at this point, since it is visible to the naked eye, is the differences in the depictions of the horses. The horses on the walls of the European caves show wild horses, bleeding perhaps from being showered with arrows and javelins as part of a hunt. Meanwhile, the horses in the Liang Kobori appear to be domesticated, with riders and reins that run straight to the horse'€™s mouth. In short, the horse of Lascaux is food, the horse of Liang Kobori is a trusted companion.

The difference between these two horses is very interesting if looked at through the history of horse domestication and the origins of civilization.

The most firm theory at this point, supported by DNA studies on domestic horses, claims that there is a high likelihood that the first horses were domesticated in the western area of the Eurasian steppes at around 6,000 to 5,500 BC. According to the journal Science, the latest discoveries in the Botai area suggest that Akmolova Provice, Kazkhtan, was the first site in the world where horses were domesticated. It is estimated that the domestication of horses by the Botai occurred around 6,000 BC.

Those conclusions will be refuted if the age of the Kobori paintings is determined to be earlier than this. If the Liang Kobori paintings are actually older than the artifacts discovered in the Botai area, or even older than the paintings in the Lascaux Cave and Altamira, this suggests that the ancestors of the people of Muna Island might have been more advanced at that time than the people who first occupied the savannahs of Europe and Asia. The progressive period of the Muna Island might have come before the advances made by people in Europe and Asia.

I suspect that the paintings at Liang Kobori are not 40,000 years old. It'€™s likely that the paintings at Kobori are not as old as their close neighbor, the Leang-Leang paintings. However, if scientific testing at Liang Kobori concludes that the paintings are, say, 10,000 years old, then a number of books on human history will have to be rewritten. If it is proven later that the horse paintings of Liang Kobori are in fact the same age, or even younger that the artifacts of domesticated horses in Botai, than a lot of new research questions will be raised.

Scientifically determining the age of the paintings at Liang Kobori is an urgent intellectual, cultural and political task. The results of that investigation might rewrite the history of art and humanity. (kes)

Horse 5: A carving at Prambanan Temple, circa 8th century.A carving at Prambanan Temple, circa 8th century.
All photos provided by Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka.

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