Siam Society – Lecture

If anyone’s in Bangkok next week (9 March), I’m giving an introductory talk about the rock art of Southeast Asia at the Siam Society. Hope to see you there, especially if you follow this site!

Rock Art: The Unseen Art of Southeast Asia. A Talk By Noel Hidalgo Tan

Source: Siam Society – Lecture

The first portable art from Southeast Asia

The Cambodia Daily report about recent excavations at Laang Spean focuses on the possible cannibalistic angle, but I am more intrigued by the discovery of what seems to be the first instance of portable rock art in the region: a stone tool with deep etchings on it.

Bone fragments from Laang Spean. Source: Cambodia Daily 20160409
Bone fragments from Laang Spean. Source: Cambodia Daily 20160409

Ancient Skull Points to Possible Cannibalism
Cambodia Daily, 9 April 2016

A French-Cambodian archaeological team has unearthed tantalizing new artifacts from beneath a cave in Battambang province that may prove to be the earliest signs of human occupation and art in the region—and the first indication of cannibalism.

The artifacts were discovered beneath the floor of Battambang’s Laang Spean cave during a February dig by the French-Cambodian Prehistoric Mission, a collaboration between archaeologists from the Ministry of Culture and the National Museum of Na­tural History in Paris. The team has found 71,000 years worth of human remains during past visits to the site.

The latest discoveries include a palmsized stone tool buried deeper than any other artifact found at the site to date, a stone with what appears to be deep etchings, and fragments of what may be a shattered human skull found amid prehistoric food scraps.

Full story here.

Conservation plan for Gua Tambun

The Perak State government announced last month plans to revitalise and conserve the Gua Tambun rock art site in Ipoh, a site I am very familiar with. The plans include constructing an entrance and public facilities, but more alarmingly, an awning to protect the paintings from damage. This is a really bad idea, because it represents a major environmental change to the rock shelter (not to mention as being practically unfeasible).

Gua Tambun. Source: The Star 20160309
Gua Tambun. Source: The Star 20160309

Working to save Tambun Cave
The Star, 08 March 2016

Realising the importance of the preservation and conservation of all archaeological and heritage sites in Perak, the state government is set to revitalise the Tambun Cave by building facilities to ensure that the place does not lose its lustre. The caves are famous for its pre-historic drawings,

State Tourism, Arts, Culture, Communications and Multimedia Committee Chairman Datuk Nolee Ashilin Mohd Radzi told MetroPerak that the state government recently finalised the conservation plan for Tambun Cave including the proposal to build a proper entrance and other public amenities.

She said RM120,000has been allocated for the construction, which will commence this month.

Full story here.

Cliffs near Thai rock art site collapse, paintings not damaged

The rock face from cliffs near the rock art site of Pha Taem, in Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani province, collapsed earlier this month, sparking fears that the paintings were in danger. Fortunately, they do not appear to be, although geologists reportedly looking into the stability of the site. The Pha Taem rock art is one of the longest panels of prehistoric paintings in Southeast Asia. Bonus trivia: They were recently featured in the first episode of the X-Files!

Pha Taem in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand
Pha Taem in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand

Pha Taem cliff paintings undamaged, says governor
Bangkok Post, 01 February 2016

Pha Taem does not collapse
Thai PBS, 01 February 2016

Safety fears at Pha Taem
The Nation, 02 February 2016

Efforts to preserve prehistoric paintings at Pha Taem start
Thai PBS, 06 February 2016

Media reports the prehistoric Pha Taem paintings had been seriously damaged by rock falling from the crumbling cliff face were incorrect, Ubon Ratchathani governor Somsak Jangtrakul said on Monday

The crumbling cliff referred to was 6km away from the rock paintings, which had not been damaged, the governor said.

The Daily News Online carried a report on Monday saying the local Khong Chiam district chief had reported that the cliff started crumbling away again in late December, seriously damaging most of the remaining rock paintings.

Full story here.

The oldest representational art in the world, found in Southeast Asia

The Smithsonian Magazine’s feature on the rock art of Sulawesi, which was discovered to be as old as some of the palaeolithic paintings from archaeology.

Rock art from Sulawesi. Source: Smithsonian 201601
Rock art from Sulawesi. Source: Smithsonian 201601

A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World
Smithsonian, January 2016

This ghostly babirusa has been known to locals for decades, but it wasn’t until Aubert, a geochemist and archaeologist, used a technique he developed to date the painting that its importance was revealed. He found that it is staggeringly ancient: at least 35,400 years old. That likely makes it the oldest-known example of figurative art anywhere in the world—the world’s very first picture.

It’s among more than a dozen other dated cave paintings on Sulawesi that now rival the earliest cave art in Spain and France, long believed to be the oldest on earth.

The findings made headlines around the world when Aubert and his colleagues announced them in late 2014, and the implications are revolutionary. They smash our most common ideas about the origins of art and force us to embrace a far richer picture of how and where our species first awoke.

Hidden away in a damp cave on the “other” side of the world, this curly-tailed creature is our closest link yet to the moment when the human mind, with its unique capacity for imagination and symbolism, switched on.

Full story here.

TED Talk: Finding hidden rock art in Southeast Asia

Last month, I was in Singapore to give a talk at TEDx Singapore which had the theme of “The Unsdicovered Country”. The original name for this talk was “The Art that you don’t see”, and it’s focused on a series of unfoldings, first about the rock art you didn’t know existed in Southeast Asia, and then to the art you couldn’t see without digital enhancement, culminating to my discovery of the Angkor Wat paintings that was announced last year.

The significance of horses in Indonesia

A story about the history of horses in Indonesia, drawing on rock art and evidence from inscriptions from all over the region. Some depictions of horses on rock art suggest that horses may have been in Indonesia longer than the conventional 13th century, when horses were thought to be introduced with the Chinese. Some bits are speculative, but it is a fascinating read nonetheless.

Liang Kobori, South Sulawesi. Source: Jakarta Post 20151208
Liang Kobori, South Sulawesi. Source: Jakarta Post 20151208

A tale of prehistoric horses in South Sulawesi
Jakarta Post, 08 December 2015

Horses were once thought to have come to the Indonesian archipelago around the 13th century along with the arrival of the until-then invincible fleet of the Yuan Dynasty from China founded by Kublai Khan. The descendants of the mounted cavalry that established the largest empire in history came to impose 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 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 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 error. Horses were already found in the archipelago centuries before the arrival of the armies from the north. Borobudur and Prambanan Temples, built around the 9th century, are decorated with several panels depicting horses.

Outside of Java, historical remains and cultural artifacts featuring horses can be found in many places.

– See more at:

The archaeological potential of East Kalimantan

Nat Geo has a feature on the French team working on the limstone karsts of the Sangkulirang Peninsula in Indonesian Borneo. Their finds from the last seven years are very promising, but development, mining and burning threatens all of that.

Karsts in Borneo. Source: National Geographic 20151111
Karsts in Borneo. Source: National Geographic 20151111

A Race to Save Ancient Human Secrets in Borneo
National Geographic, 11 November 2015

If you wanted to create a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, you might well look to the limestone landscape, or karst, on the Sangkulirang Peninsula in eastern Borneo. There, in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan, you could cite the abundance of human and natural riches to justify your proposal.

For seven years, archaeologist Francois-Xavier Ricaut, from the University of Toulouse, and his French-Indonesian team, MAFBO (Mission Archéologique Franco-Indonésienne à Bornéo), have been excavating three sites in the Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat karst, which spans 3.7 million acres (1.5 million hectares).

In the karst, thick tropical forest shrouds weathered limestone spires, making it hard to get around, let alone do science. As a result, Ricaut says, “hardly any archaeological work has been done in this karst—we’re just beginning.”

After dogged sleuthing, Ricaut and his colleagues have found bones and charcoal that date back 35,000 years, the earliest such evidence of human occupation yet found in Kalimantan.

Full story here.