Cave rock art uncovered from 2500 years ago

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Geometric symbold.
A TINY Indonesian island, previously unexplored by archaeologists, has been found to be unusually rich in ancient cave paintings following a study by researchers from ANU. 

Moko drum with star similar to those found in paintings.
The team uncovered a total of 28 rock art sites dating from at least 2500 years ago on the island of Kisar, which measures just 81 sq kms and lies north of Timor-Leste.

Lead archaeologist, Prof Sue O’Connor from the School of Culture, History and Language, says the paintings help tell the story of the region’s history of trade and culture.

“These Indonesian islands were the heart of the spice trade going back for thousands of years,” Prof O’Connor says.

“The paintings we found depict boats, dogs, horses and people often holding what look like shields. Other scenes show people playing drums perhaps performing ceremonies.”

Prof O’Connor says the discovery points to a stronger shared history with the neighbouring island of Timor, which had not been previously known.

“The Kisar paintings include images which are remarkably similar to those in the east end of Timor-Leste,” she says.

“A distinctive feature of the art in both islands is the exceptionally small size of the human and animal figures, most being less than 10 centimetres. Despite their size, however, they are remarkably dynamic.”

Prof O’Connor says the relationship between the two islands likely extends back to the Neolithic period, 3500 years ago, which saw an influx of Austronesian settlers who introduced domestic animals, such as the dog, and perhaps cereal crops.

However, the close parallels between some of the painted figures and images cast on metal drums that began to be produced in northern Vietnam and southwest China about 2500 years ago and traded throughout the region, indicate a more recent date for some of the paintings.

“These paintings perhaps herald the introduction of a new symbolic system established about two thousand years ago, following on the exchange of prestige goods and the beginning of hierarchical societies” she says.

The research was funded through the Australian Research Council’s Kathleen Fitzpatrick Australian Laureate Fellowship and done in partnership with the University of Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta. A paper describing rock paintings at five of the discovered sites has been published in the Cambridge Journal of Archaeology.

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