Cave Art

November 28, 2014

Tale of Two Horses


Horse is the most influential animal on the development of history. If there are three things that ushered in the dawn of human civilization, certainly they are: the creation of the alphabet, the discovery of the wheel, and the domestication of the horse. As was emphasized by Alfred Weber, the spreading of horse domestication as a mounted animal, and for hauling carriages, was the catalyst for the blooming of what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age (die Achsenzeit) from the 8th to the 2nd centuries BC.

The importance of this period for humans is made by the rise of idealists, poets and philosphers, and the formation of the worlds major religions still very 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 Upanishad wandered the land. In China there were Lao Tse, Mo Tsu and Khong Hu Cu. In The middle East, a few Jewish prophets came to proselytise and set forth their prophecies in the city walls, and from there to open hundred years later the way to inspire the formation of study groups that became Christianity and Islam. Their world view and other products of their revolutionary thinking were carried around and swiftly spread far and wide thanks to horses.

The great contribution of the horse came about not merely because of its capacity to carry the weight of people and bring them together, but also to simultaneously bridge diverse thinking and imaginations. Records from 3000 years ago mention that the horse-riders who dominated the steppes of Central Asia and Eastern Europe regards the backs of their horses as their domain, their universe  all of their lives took place on the back of their horses — the ate, slept, and fought from over there. Astride a horse, people gain a greater sense of confidence, and their attitudes towards space and time are more dynamic. The small step from walking to horseback riding is indeed similar in magnitude with Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the face of the moon: Both enables the birth of a new age in the development of humans  thinking and spiritual life.

In the not so distant past, horses were very important for many Indonesian people, as vehicle for transportation. I still remember, in my childhood in South Sulawesi, horses were an extension of the hands, and especially the feet, for almost all everyone.  Without horses, people’s reach were very limited, they couldn’t go far to haul and exchange their produce, to share their pain and joy. In the neighborhood I was born in, in Barru Regency, 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, 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 Archipelago around the 13th Century along with the arrival of the invincible fleet of the Yuan Dynasty from China founded by Kubla Khan. The descendants of the mounted cavalry that established the largest empire in history came to ascertain 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 then 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 in 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 erroneous. Horses were already found in the archipelagic region centuries before the arrival of the armies from the north. Borobudur and Prambanan Temples, built around the 9th century, are decorated with several reliefs 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 had 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’s presence is still very prominent and is a cherished part of people’s cultural identity.


Interestingly, the oldest record of a horse in the Archipelago was found not in Java, Sumatra or in the Lesser Sunda Islands, but maybe in Sulawesi. In a cave on Muna Island, Southeast Sulawesi, which the locals call Liang Kabori (Cave of Inscription) several paintings were found depicting horses, kites, and some other things represented in 130 different red paintings, starting from the entrance to the deepest part of the cave. (The existence of the kites painting has led a German aerial photograph consultant named Wolfgong Bick to conduct a research and concluded that Muna Island is the birthplace of the oldest known kites culture in the world.) The paintings of Kobori Cave instantly remind us 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 pre-historic images from Europe have long been regarded as the oldest paintings in the world. However the new discovery regarding the age of the cave-paintings in Sulawesi have shaken that perception and renewed speculation on many things, particularly around the history of art and the creative potential of humankind, and the roots that gave birth to it.

Not far from Muna Island, about 250 km to the west, in the Maros Regency, South Sulawesi, another cluster of caves with paintings was found. A joint research between Indonesia’s National Centre for Archaeology (ARKENAS), University of Wollongong and Griffith University (Australia), the Archaeological Heritage Preservation Institute (Balai Pelestarian Peninggalan Purbakala) and the Centre for Archaeology (Balai Arkeologi) in Makassar, South Sulawesi, has recenty provided new understandings of the age of these wall-paintings. Last October, a number of the most popular scientific media in the world, led by the journal Nature, edition 9, October 2014 with its cover title “Ice Age Art in the Tropics”, simultaneously announced the findings of these experts. Using a Uranium-series dating method, they concluded that the paintings on the wall of Leang Leang Cave, Maros, are estimated to be around 35,000 to 40,000 years old.

The prehistoric paintings that appear on the cave walls 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 kind of painting in Maros, a hand stencil, is the oldest visual art work of its type in the world. And a pig-deer painting next to the hand stencil is concluded to be the oldest figurative painting in the world. These discoveries certainly put to rest the Eurocentricism of ancient art that had until now assured Europe as the birthplace of visual art, and the Lascaux Caves, El Castillo and Altamira as the witnesses to this birth.

The age of the paintings in Maros have 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.

Thus far it seems there has not yet been any scientific assessment of the paintings of horses in the Liang Kobori. So for instance, if the Kobori painting is the same age as the Leang-Leang painting, then this means we can say that the Kobori painting is older that the Lascaux painting. If this is so, the implications are even more interesting.

The time difference between the Kobori and Lascaux horse cannot of course be determined at this point. What we can immediately confirm, because it is visible to the naked eye, is the figure of a horse in that painting. The horses on the walls of the European caves show wild horses, bleeding perhaps from being hunted and showered with arrows and javelins. Meanwhile the horses in the Liang Kobori appear to be domesticated, with a rider on its back and a reins that run straight to the horse’s mouth. In short, the horse of Lascaux is a digestible food, the horse of Liang Kobori is a trusted companion.

The difference between these two horse figures is very interesting if we see it from the history of horse domestication and the origin of civilization. The most firm theory at this point, supported by DNA studies on domestic horses, mentions that there is a high likelihood that the first horse was domesticated in the Western area of the Eurasian steppes around 6000-5,500 years BC. According to the journal Science as quoted in Wikipedia, this latest discovery in the Botai area shows that the area in the Akmolova Provice, Kazkhtan, is the first site in the world where horses were domesticated. It is estimated that the domestication of horses by the Botai occured around 6,000 years BC.

The conclusions above is easily refuted if the age of the Kobori paintings can be determined to actually be earlier than this. If the Liang Kobori paintings are actually older than the artifacts discovered in the the Botai area, or even older than the paintings in the Lascaux Cave and Altamira, so it might be concluded that the ancestors of the people of Muna Island may have been more civilised, more advanced at that time than people who first occupied the savannah of Europe and Asia. For a certain period in human history, the progressive time in Muna Island seems to have jumped and way ahead of the progressive time of Europe and Asia.

I suspect that the paintings at Liang Kobori are not 40,000 years old. Its likely that the paintings at Kobori are not as old as their near neighbour, the Leang-leang paintings. However, if scientific testing done on the 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 artefacts of domesticated horses in Botai, there will still be lots of new knowledge to be unearthed.

Scientifically determining the age of the paintings at Liang Kobori, I think, is an intellectual, cultural and political work that urgently needs to be done. Scientific method is indeed a powerful weapon not only in rewriting the history of art and humanity.

Thanks to Elly Kent for the translation

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