Rock art and frontier conflict in Southeast Asia: Insights from direct radiocarbon ages for the large human figures of Gua Sireh Sarawak
Rock art and frontier conflict in Southeast Asia: Insights from direct radiocarbon ages for the large human figures of Gua Sireh Sarawak
Rock art and frontier conflict in Southeast Asia: Insights from direct radiocarbon ages for the large human figures of Gua Sireh Sarawak
Rock Art Network
Rock art and frontier conflict in Southeast Asia: Insights from direct radiocarbon ages for the large human figures of Gua Sireh, Sarawak
24 August 2023

Jillian Huntley1,2*, Paul S. C. Tacon2,3*, Andrea Jalandoni2,3, Fiona Petchey4, Emilie Dotte-Sarout5, Mohammad Sherman Sauffi William6

1 Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Gold Coast & Nathan, Queensland, Australia, 2 Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, Griffith University, Gold Coast & Nathan, Queensland, Australia, 3 Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit, Griffith Centre for Social & Cultural Research, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, 4 Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory, Te Aka Mātuatua—School of Science, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, 5 School of Social Sciences, Discipline of Archaeology, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia, 6 Sarawak Museum Department, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.

* j.huntley@griffith.edu.au (JH); p.tacon@griffith.edu.au (PSCT)

Abstract

Rock art and frontier conflict in Southeast Asia: Insights from direct radiocarbon ages for the large human figures of Gua Sireh, Sarawak
Gua Sireh, located in western Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo), is known for its rock art. The cave houses hundreds of charcoal drawings depicting people, often with headdresses, knives and other accoutrements. Here, we present direct radiocarbon dates and pigment characterizations from charcoal drawings of two large, unique Gua Sireh human figures (anthropomorphs). To our knowledge, these are the first chronometric ages generated for Malaysian rock art, providing insights into the social contexts of art production, as well as the opportunities and challenges of dating rock art associated with the Malay/Austronesian diasporas in Southeast Asia more generally. Previous archaeological excavations revealed that people occupied Gua Sireh from around 20,000 years ago to as recently as AD 1900. 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. The age of the drawings, dated between 280 and 120 cal BP (AD 1670 to 1830), corresponds with a period of increas- ing conflict when the Malay elites controlling the region exacted heavy tolls on the local hill tribes. We discuss rock art production at Gua Sireh in this context of frontier conflict and Bidayuh resistance.

Introduction

A fundamental challenge facing rock art researchers, and all those who study the human past, is understanding the age of their subject. Securely situating rock images in their chronological and cultural context is the foundation for interpreting them. With the right circumstances for generating numeric age determinations scarce, those scientific dates that are produced become anchors for relative rock art sequences and broader insights into the human past. In recent years, dating has been a major focus of Australasian research owing to revelations that the earliest phases of rock art in central Island Southeast Asia are contemporary with, and in some cases older than, the Franco Cantabrian rock art found in the deep caves of Europe; compelling evidence that disparate early human populations were independently, simultaneously producing complex symbolic imagery on cave/rockshelter surfaces.

Island Southeast Asia’s rock art spans more than 45,500 years and was produced sporadically up until the recent past.

Taking a multifaceted approach to understanding two large anthropomorphic figures at Gua Sireh, we focused on recent ‘Austronesian style’ drawings. Used here, Austronesian denotes an association with the Neolithic communities who colonized Southeast Asia more than 2,500 years ago. Originally a linguistic construct, ’Austronesian’ has been used by archaeologists following Peter Bellwood’s foundational model to refer to a suite of material culture thought to mark the expansion of Malayo-Polynesian Austronesian speakers (with a linguistic homeland in Taiwan) across Island Southeast Asia and the Pacific. We note the utility of the term ‘Austronesian’ in relation to the Holocene rock art traditions of Island Southeast Asia and the Pacific is currently cause for reflection amongst scholars as the cultural complexity of the Neolithic period in the region continues to emerge from the archaeological record.

Using radiocarbon dating, we situate the Gua Sireh drawings in their culture-historic context, comparing the rock art with material culture excavated within the cave from the 1950s to late 1980s. To explore human-environment interactions and past technologies, we characterized the pigments applied to draw these images. Using pigment characterizations and details of the site’s history, we discuss technical complexities relating to the age estimates. Finally, we interpret these large Gua Sireh human depictions in the colonial setting in which they were made, informed by the oral histories of the Bidayuh Indigenous peoples who have continuing custodial responsibilities over the site today. This work is situated amongst recent studies across the globe that have emphasized the role of rock art in Indigenous resistance to colonial occupation, including violent frontier conflicts, even enslavement.

Rock art and frontier conflict in Southeast Asia: Insights from direct radiocarbon ages for the large human figures of Gua Sireh Sarawak
Gua Sireh main chamber entrance
Rock Art Network
 
Rock art and frontier conflict in Southeast Asia: Insights from direct radiocarbon ages for the large human figures of Gua Sireh Sarawak
Gua Sireh outlook
Rock Art Network
 
Rock art and frontier conflict in Southeast Asia: Insights from direct radiocarbon ages for the large human figures of Gua Sireh Sarawak
Sample location and pigment morphology
Rock Art Network
 
Rock art and frontier conflict in Southeast Asia: Insights from direct radiocarbon ages for the large human figures of Gua Sireh Sarawak
Sample location and pigment morphology
Rock Art Network
 
Rock art and frontier conflict in Southeast Asia: Insights from direct radiocarbon ages for the large human figures of Gua Sireh Sarawak
Sample location and pigment morphology
Rock Art Network
 
Rock art and frontier conflict in Southeast Asia: Insights from direct radiocarbon ages for the large human figures of Gua Sireh Sarawak
Sample location and pigment morphology
Rock Art Networkl
Study rationale

The aim of this research was to understand when the large human figures at Gua Sireh were made. We targeted the two largest motifs in the cave to test the viability of radiocarbon for dating Gua Sireh motifs, with the aim of not adversely visually impacting the rock art. In addition, we selected samples that would aid in the interpretation of age determinations, exploring the taphonomy of the rock art panels and pigments. We sampled a weathered anthropomorphic figure at the entrance to the main art panels in an area of active cave surface (GS1), as well as a ‘stick figure’ motif (GS2) known from previous recordings to have been produced sometime after 1989, but before 2010. In so doing, we deliberately selected a location that we reasoned would be chal- lenging for carbon preservation (GS1) and a recent artwork that could help address the likeli- hood of ‘the old charcoal problem’ (GS2) whereby an older age is returned as a result of aged charcoal being used to create a recent image. In addition, the recent stick figure was sampled to check for potential contaminants as it was made on a panel surface thought to have been modified during active conservation management works undertaken in the 1980s.

Open Access Research Article

The full open access research paper is available to download here:
https://doi.org/10.1371/journal. pone.0288902

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by Aron Mazel
28 January 2022
→  Early masterpieces: San hunter-gatherer shaded paintings of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg and surrounding areas
by Aron Mazel
8 September 2021
→  Aїr Mountains Safari - Sahara
by David Coulson
17 August 2021
→  The Neolithic rock art passage tombs of Anglesey as brand-new virtual tours
by Ffion Reynolds
21 June 2021
→  A Map from the Memory of the World
by Janette Deacon
8 June 2021
→  The dangers of 'Discovering' rock art
by Peter Robinson
1 June 2021
→  Dharkundi and Deurkuthar Rock Art Sites in Central India
by Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak
1 June 2021
→ Dating the Earth and its Rock Art
by Neville Agnew
23 May 2021
→ Studying the Source of Dust Using a Simple and Effective Methodology:
by Tom McClintock
30 April 2021
→ ABC Radio National 'Nightlife' with Philip Clark - 'Exploring the wonders of cave art in Australia'
by Professor Paul S.C. Taçon & Dr Josephine McDonald
30 April 2021
→ A Painted Treasure - San hunter-gatherer visual engagement with Didima Gorge (South Africa)
by Aron Mazel
10 March 2021
→ L'Atlas de la grotte Chauvet-Pont d'Arc
by
Jean-jacques Delannoy &
Jean-Michel Geneste
1 February 2021
→ Oldest cave painting found in Indonesia
by Rock Art Network
14 January 2021
→ Graffiti Dates and Names as a Rock Art Conservation and Management Tool
by Johannes H. N. Loubser
29 October 2020
→ Animals in Rock Art
by Aron Mazel
7 October 2020
→ Reflecting Back: 40 Years Since ‘A Survey of the Rock Art in the Natal Drakensberg’ Project (1978-1981)
by Aron Mazel
29 September 2020
→ Art on the Rocks in the Age of COVID-19
by Neville Agnew & Tom McClintock
15 September 2020
→ Explore Cederberg rock art from your home
by Janette Deacon
9 September 2020
→ The Continuum of Art: The relationship between Ice Age art and contemporary art and how an understanding of the former can help engage a modern audience
by Peter Robinson
16 August 2020
→ Illuminating the Realm of the Dead: The Rock Art within the Dolmen de Soto, Andalucía, Southern Spain
by George Nash
29 July 2020
→ Rock Art Adventurous Field Work during COVID-19 in the Southernmost of South America
by María Isabel Hernández Llosas
9 June 2020
→ The Final Passage - FAQ
by Jean-Michel Geneste
1 June 2020
→ Experts rush to map fire-hit rock art
by Andrew Bock
15 May 2020
→ Sacred Indigenous rock art sites under threat
by Amy van den Berg
12 May 2020
→ Virtual Meeting
by Ben Dickins
22 April 2020
→ The Bradshaw Foundation Launches the Rock Art Network Website
by Wendy All
23 March 2020
→ The aftermath of fire damage to important rock art at the Baloon Cave tourist destination, Carnarvon Gorge, Queensland, Australia
by Paul Taçon
24 November 2019
→ The removal and camouflage of graffiti: The art of creating chaos out of order and order out of chaos
by Johannes H. N. Loubser
11 November 2019
→ The Histories of Australian Rock Art Research symposium, 8-9 December 2019, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia
by Paul Tacon
5 November 2019
→ San rock art exhibition at the National Museum & Research Center of Altamira
by Aron Mazel
17 September 2019
→ The 2018 Art on the Rocks Colloquium
by Wendy All
2 December 2018
→ Preserving Our Ancient Art Galleries: Volunteerism, Collaboration, and the Rock Art Archive
by Wendy All
1 December 2017
→ Altamira and the New Technology for Public Access
by Pilar Fatás Monforte
30 April 2017
→ From the Chauvet Cave to the Caverne du Pont d’Arc: Methods and Strategies for a Replica to Preserve the Heritage of a Decorated Cave That Cannot Be Made Accessible to the Public
by Jean-Michel Geneste
29 April 2017
→ Emerging Consciousness and New Media: The Management of Rock Art in Southeast Asia and New Opportunities for Communicating Its Significance
by Noel Hidalgo Tan
28 April 2017
→ Step by Step: The Power of Participatory Planning with Local Communities for Rock Art Management and Tourism
by Nicholas Hall
27 April 2017
→ Fundraising for Rock Art by Promoting Its Values
by Terry Little
26 April 2017
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