Exploring the Rich History within Borneo's Cave Art: Tracing Colonization Resistance and Human Dynamics
For the span of 20,000 years, a cave in Borneo has been a site of human activity. Within its depths, a piece of rock art, aged approximately 400 years, portrays scenes of colonial resistance.
The islands of South-East Asia stand as a testament to a vast and dynamic history of human endeavors, marked by technological innovations, migratory patterns, and conflicts that have shaped the region over millennia. One unique and invaluable source that chronicles this complex past is the rock art that adorns these landscapes, with a history stretching back more than 45,000 years. But the significance of this rock art goes beyond archaic history; recent research has unveiled its role in documenting more contemporary events, including Indigenous resistance against colonial oppression, violent territorial disputes, and the grim echoes of enslavement.
A new study1 casts a new light upon the rock art of Sarawak, located on the island of Borneo, within the state of Malaysia. Through meticulous investigation, this rock art has been dated to a period that aligns with the 17th to 19th centuries, coinciding with instances of Indigenous resistance to colonial forces in the Malaysian Borneo region. The findings offer insights into the lives, struggles, and tenacity of these early inhabitants as they navigated a tumultuous era.
In the northwest of Borneo, sprawling caves serve as canvas to black drawings that depict a rich tapestry of scenes – figures of people, animals, ships, and intricate geometric patterns. Among these caves, Gua Sireh stands as a renowned site, attracting visitors who wish to connect with the past. Situated approximately 55 kilometers southeast of Sarawak's capital, Kuching, Gua Sireh is adorned with hundreds of charcoal drawings that convey stories of hunting, fighting, fishing, and dancing. The people depicted often wear distinct headdresses and wield various weapons, providing insights into their way of life.
Gua Sireh's significance is amplified by excavations conducted in the mid-20th century, which unveiled its occupation history spanning nearly 20,000 years. The Indigenous inhabitants, who eventually evolved into the contemporary Bidayuh people, utilized the cave as a dwelling and refuge for generations before abandoning it around 1900.
The story of Gua Sireh echoes the broader narrative of human migration in the region. The spread of Malayo-Polynesian Austronesian speakers, originating from Taiwan, left indelible traces across Island South-East Asia over several millennia. Around 4,000 years ago, Austronesian influence made its mark at Gua Sireh, marked by the appearance of charred rice and pottery.
Within this vast expanse of time, the cave continued to bear witness to cultural interactions and exchanges. Grave goods and artifacts signaled interactions between the Bidayuh and coastal traders approximately 2,000 years ago.
As the study reveals, the rock art at Gua Sireh also captures a darker period in history – the tumultuous years of the 17th to 19th centuries. During this time, Malay elites exerted dominance over Indigenous tribes, imposing harsh tolls and conflicts. Radiocarbon dating unveiled two significant figures drawn between 1670 and 1830 – a time of resistance against colonial forces.
Thisinterpretation was guided not only by the scientific data but also by the oral histories of the Bidayuh people, who carry on custodial responsibilities for the site to this day. By combining the tangible and intangible facets of history, a clearer picture emerged of the struggles and triumphs that shaped the inhabitants' lives.
In addition to radiocarbon dating and oral history, the interpretation of the rock art was informed by the very images themselves. The depictions of weaponry, attire, and scenes of conflict were all considered in context with the historical events that marked that era. One drawing portrayed a figure wielding Parang Ilang, a weapon significant during the onset of white rule in Borneo. This figure's presence between 1670 and 1710 aligns with the Malay elites' dominance over the Bidayuh. Another image displayed individuals armed with Pandat, the war sword of the Land Dayaks, used exclusively for combat.
These figures take us back to a time of turmoil and upheaval. The narratives told through oral history and illustrated in the drawings intertwine, painting a vivid picture of battles fought and refuge sought within Gua Sireh's sheltering walls.
In conclusion, this study opens a window into the intricate history that has shaped Island South-East Asia. Through meticulous research, we have deciphered the layers of rock art, revealing stories of resistance, conflict, and the resilience of Indigenous communities. Gua Sireh stands not just as a repository of art but as a testament to the enduring spirit of those who called it home.
Huntley, J., Taçon, P. S. C., Jalandoni, A., Petchey, F., Dotte-Sarout, E., & William, M. S. S. (2023). Rock art and frontier conflict in Southeast Asia: Insights from direct radiocarbon ages for the large human figures of Gua Sireh, Sarawak. PloS One, 18(8), e0288902. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288902