A total of 28 rock art cave sites have been discovered on the Indonesian island of Kisar, which measures just 81 km2 and lies north of Timor-Leste. A paper describing cave paintings at five of the discovered sites is published in the Cambridge Journal of Archaeology.
“Archeologically, no one has ever explored this small island before,” said Professor Sue O’Connor, from the Department of Archaeology and Natural History at the Australian National University.
“These Indonesian islands were the heart of the spice trade going back for thousands of years.”
The paintings Professor O’Connor and colleagues found depict boats, dogs, horses and people often holding what look like shields.
Other scenes show people playing drums perhaps performing ceremonies.
“The discovery pointed to a stronger shared history with the neighboring island of Timor than had previously been known,” Professor O’Connor said.
“The Kisar paintings include images which are remarkably similar to those in the east end of Timor-Leste.
“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 cm (4 inches). Despite their size, however, they are remarkably dynamic,” she said.
According to the team, the relationship between the two islands likely extends back to the Neolithic period 3,500 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 2,500 years ago and traded throughout the region, indicate a more recent date for some of the paintings.
“We suggest that, rather than being Neolithic in age, some of the figurative motifs more likely have a Metal Age origin, which in this region places them within the last 2,500 years,” the archaeologists said.
“These paintings perhaps herald the introduction of a new symbolic system established about 2,000 years ago, following on the exchange of prestige goods and the beginning of hierarchical societies,” Professor O’Connor added.
Sue O’Connor et al. Ideology, Ritual Performance and Its Manifestations in the Rock Art of Timor-Leste and Kisar Island, Island Southeast Asia. Cambridge Journal of Archaeology, published online December 4, 2017; doi: 10.1017/S0959774317000816
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