A large cave known as Gua Sireh, which is located in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo in Malaysia, features one of the most extensive collections of recently drawn cave art found anywhere in the world. In a study of the Malaysian rock art just completed by a team of archaeologists from Australia, Malaysia and New Zealand, radiocarbon dating procedures revealed that the indigenous cave drawings were made between the years 1670 and 1830, when the Bidayuh people were using the cave for shelter and protection.
Infographic showing the dated Malaysian rock art. (Lucas Huntley / CC BY 4.0 )
Violence and Warfare Depicted in Malaysian Rock Art
During this time period, the Bidayuh were coming into increasing conflict with the Malay people, who were looking to expand their power in the region. The indigenous inhabitants of Borneo occupied resource-rich land that the Malay coveted, and the constant efforts of the Malay to push the Bidayuh off their home territory led to armed clashes that produced a number of casualties on both sides.
“Previous archaeological excavations revealed that people occupied Gua Sireh from around 20,000 years ago to as recently as AD 1900,” the study authors wrote in an article in the journal PLOS One . “The site is within Bidayuh territory, and these local Indigenous peoples recall the cave’s use as a refuge during territorial violence in the early 1800s.”
In an interview with Cosmos Magazine , study co-author Dr. Paul Tacon, an archaeologist affiliated with the Griffith University Centre for Social and Cultural Studies in Australia, noted that the imagery on the cave drawings portrayed exactly what would be expected if the makers were attempting to record the history of their efforts to resist occupation.
“There are figures holding what are essentially fighting swords,” he said. “Some of these large figures are surrounded by lots of smaller figures. And we know from the history and ethnography that the paintings that we’ve dated are from a period when there was a lot of violence between Malay elites and the local Bidayuh people, and those on the coasts, the Iban. So the nature of iconography, the nature of the images, and the dates that we got, sits perfectly with the historical record of frontier violence at that time.”
While scenes of battle and conflict were prominent within the Malaysian rock art, in its totality the artwork in Gua Sireh covered diverse subject matter, all relevant to the lives and lifestyles of the Bidayuh in the 17th through the 19th centuries. “At Gua Sireh, people are drawn wearing headdresses – some armed with shields, knives and spears, in scenes showing activities such as hunting, butchering, fishing, fighting and dancing,” Dr. Tacon said, in a Griffith University press release announcing the radiocarbon dating results.
Similar imagery drawn in charcoal has been found in caves or on rock faces in the Philippines, in the peninsular part of Malaysia, in other locations on Borneo and on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. The Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research had previously done dating work on some of these finds, and they proved that the Sulawesi drawings were made around 500 AD and the drawings in the Philippines in 1,500 BC.
Mohammad Sherman Sauffi William from the Sarawak Museum and Jillian Huntley harvesting sample from the Malaysian rock art. (Paul S.C. Taçon / CC BY 4.0 )
A Historic First in Radiocarbon Dating at Malaysian Rock Art Site
If the makers of the cave art in Gua Sireh had chosen to draw in a different substance other than charcoal, precise radiocarbon dating might not have been possible. But charcoal is produced from wood or bamboo, and because these are organic substances charcoal samples can be dated.
While testing the charcoal used in the drawings was theoretically possible, however, actually having the opportunity to do so was far from guaranteed. “I’ve been studying this art for about 14 years now with Malaysian archaeologists, and in many areas it’s difficult to get a permit to sample the art because they don’t want to do even minimal damage to it,” Dr. Tacon explained.
But fortunately, Dr. Tacon and his research colleague Mohammad Sherman Sauffi William, a curator at the Sarawak Museum Department, were granted permission to scrape tiny charcoal samples off the walls at the Gua Sireh cave for testing purposes. Sauffi William is himself a descendent of the indigenous Bidayuh people who made the cave drawings , and his involvement in the project likely convinced cultural authorities to cooperate.
According to Dr. Tacon, this is the first time radiocarbon dating has been used to calculate the age of Malaysian rock art. In addition to the difficulties getting permission to remove samples, most cave art in the region was made from red pigments extracted from rocks. Since these pigments aren’t organic, no testing of their age is possible.
Dr. Tacon confirmed that there are a few other sites that feature black charcoal drawings on the island of Borneo, and also in peninsular Malaysia. Now that the Gua Sireh tests have produced such excellent results, perhaps Malaysian authorities will grant permission for charcoal samples to be taken from these other sites for testing as well. This will reveal additional information about this stunning Malaysian rock art.
A Bidayuh village depicted in an illustration by Charles Ramsay Drinkwater Bethune from 1845. The Malaysian rock art has been attributed to the Bidayuh people. ( Public domain )
Malaysian Rock Art Serves as Record of Traumatic History
This new scientific study has provided solid evidence linking the cave drawings in Borneo to the strife between the indigenous Bidayuh people and Malay invaders. But the connection is further supported by the oral history of the Bidayuh, which is well known to Mohammed Sherman Sauffi William.
“The Bidayuh recall Gua Sireh’s use as a refuge during territorial violence in the early 1800s when a very harsh Malay Chief had demanded they hand over their children,” he explained. “They refused and retreated to Gua Sireh, where they initially held off a force of 300 armed men trying to enter the cave from the valley about 60 meters below.”
While the Bidayuh suffered some losses, most were able to escape through a secret passageway that led them hundreds of meters into the surrounding hills before allowing them to exit on the other side. Following this harrowing incident the people were relieved that they’d been able to save their children from being captured or killed, ensuring Bidayuh survival for at least another generation.
Speaking about the cave paintings, Sauffi William noted that “the figures were drawn holding distinctive weapons such as a Pandat which was used exclusively for fighting or protection, as well two short-bladed Parang Ilang , the main weapons used during warfare that marked the first decades of white rule in Borneo.”
The mention of white rule refers to the British, who ultimately supplanted the Malay people and took control of Borneo in the name of the British Crown in 1841. It’s obvious that the the artists responsible for the cave drawings at Gua Sireh lived through a lot of traumatic history, using the walls of that cave to record their suffering to make sure it would be remembered by their ancestors.
Top image: The recently dated Malaysian rock art. Source: Andrea Jalandoni / CC BY 4.0
By Nathan Falde