Preshistoric petroglyph rock paintings in Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

By Dian Hasan | July 10, 2010

It is no secret that Indonesia holds many wonders that attract visitors from far and wide. An ancient land with stunning natural beauty, the world’s largest archipelago has witnessed many a travelers traipsing through, while migrating to other places. Many of whom, of course, stayed on to form the multiethnic mozaic that makes up Indonesia today.

Among those earlier visitors who “stopped by” Indonesia must have included ancient tribes – most probably Aborigines from Australia – who ventured as far as Papua and left their markings in the form of rock paintings (or “Petroglyphs“) in and around Misool Island in Raja Ampat.

Local guide, Merdeka, showing the rock painting site. Photo: Marit Miners

This is the known lore of people around Raja Ampat, and much is to be learned still, with further scientific and archeological studies, on how these well-preserved rock paintings ended up there. They are mostly done in ochre depicting various human figures, fish, flowers and plants, tools and vessels, and occasional hand. It is estimated that they are anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 years old.

And adds yet another fascinating fact about Indonesia’s offering to the world. And while Raja Ampat is by no means the only area in Indonesia with ancient rock artwork, one could argue that Raja Ampat is Indonesia’s answer to France’s famed Lascaux Paleolithic cave paintings. These are of course much older, estimated at around 17,000 years old.

The following is a first-person account on the Misool petroglyphs, from Marit Miners, co-founder of Misool Eco Resort, arguably Indonesia’s most chic and eco-sensitive dive resort. Swedish-born Marit is the better-half of Brit Andrew Miners, and together the couple created Misool Eco Resort. Here’s Marit’s excerpt from her blog post:

Some of the amazing paintings are as clear as the day they were painted. Makes you think of graffiti adorning major urban areas! All photos: Marit Miners

Marit Miners entering the cave in a boat. The remote location, accessible only by boat may explain the well preserved condition of the ancient rock paintings. Photos: Underwater Austrasia (L), Marit Miners (R)

One of the rock paintings that appears to resemble a ball bearing of sort. Photo: Marit Miners

The surrounding area where rock paintings are found. This rock formation is known as the Bee Hive.

… And you haven’t even heard the best part of my story yet! We heard some rumours from the local villagers about mysterious rock paintings made by ‘Orang Dulu,’ or The People Before. We asked around in the village for a guide to lead us there, but no one seemed to be able to remember where they were, explaining that their grannies had shown them eons ago, when they were children. After several visits to the village, we finally engaged Mister Merdeka to take us.

Merdeka led us through a confounding maze of lagoons and passages and then led us to a long sheer cliff face with a small cave at the water level. As we approached the wall, rough ochre markings became visible. Dolphins, tuna, hands, turtles, bats, and all sorts of mysterious markings, including one that looks a lot like a ball bearing.

They sprawled from just a few feet above the water to high high up on the cliff, as well as deep inside the cave. Nearly all of them were a deep ochre color, though we did see some in black, yellow, and grey. Most looked as though they had been made with fingers, but there were others which were clearly ‘spray painted,’ presumably using the mouth as a vehicle for the spray. The silhouette of the hand may look familiar to you – they are often seen in Australia.

I can’t find the words to describe how it felt to see these paintings – you’ll just have to come and find out for yourself. As far as we know, these petroglyphs have yet to be studied .

According to some friends, similar markings have been found and studied on mainland Papua (I’m very eager to get my mitts on this book, but I haven’t been able to find it. If any of our readers have any tips, please contact me here). Those mainland markings have been studied by an archaeologist and carbon dated to 3,000 years ago.

According to this story, which I have yet to research and confirm, the Torres Strait which separates Australia and Papua was last dry 3,000 years ago, and Aboriginal Australians made their way north to Papua, leaving petroglyphs along the way. The local Raja Ampat people and Papuan people have no tradition of this sort.

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