In 2019, I made a trip to Sulawesi, one of the largest islands in Indonesia, to visit some of the world’s oldest cave art. So strong were my emotions that, in the visitors’ book of the cave of Leang Timpuseng, I wrote alongside the other lucky archaeologists and tourists who have been granted access: “and now I can die.”
The trip marked an emotional return to a part of the world I had visited nearly 40 years earlier on an anthropological expedition. It brought me full circle. Back in 1985, my colleagues and I documented a series of paintings in a cave just a few tens of kilometers away from Leang Timpuseng, long before anyone knew that some of the artwork in this region is so spectacularly old. In recent years, paintings from one of these limestone caves were dated to more than 45,500 years ago—the oldest cave art ever found.
Sadly, the specific cave we had visited—Sumpang Bita—was, within a year or so of our visit, subjected to well-intentioned but unfortunate restoration efforts that repainted over an image to make it clearer. In light of recent discoveries, the photos from our original trip have proven very useful to researchers, not only by showing the original state of the artwork, but also by helping to show how quickly paintings in this region are degrading.