The Gua Sireh Cave in Sarawak, Malaysia, contains hundreds of drawings on its limestone walls. The works in the cave — which has been inhabited on and off from around 20,000 years ago until 1900 — depict hunting and fishing, dancing and ritual processions, and, as seen in two large-scale drawings, human figures likely armed for battle. Using radiocarbon technology, a team of six researchers from Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand have dated those two artworks for the first time. Their results trace the charcoal drawings to between 1670 and 1830, during the persecution of Indigenous groups in Sarawak. The newly deciphered timeline suggests the images depict the Bidayuh Indigenous people’s violent struggle against their oppressors.
The team published their findings yesterday, August 23, in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE. The paper points out compelling visual evidence to corroborate their theory. The figure on the left holds a sheathed knife that resembles a Parang Ilang, a blade used by Malaysian Indigenous communities for tasks ranging from cutting crops to headhunting — a detail included in written narratives from this period. The left figure’s towering stature and headdress could suggest his identity as a warrior. The subject on the right is surrounded by seven drawings of smaller humans, again suggesting that the central figure may have been a warrior.
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“The nature of the imagery, the radiocarbon dates, the ethnographic literature, and the Indigenous oral history all line up and support each other,” Paul Taçon, a professor at Australia’s Griffith University and one of the study’s authors, told Hyperallergic. He called the rock art an “archive of local history.”
Excavations in Gua Sireh from the 1950s through the 1980s uncovered artifacts including glass beads, pottery, buried human remains, and Chinese ceramics from as late as the 1800s. Today, the cave is overseen by the Sarawak Museum and the Bidayuh people.
The Sarawak region was inhabited by a number of Indigenous tribes before the Sultan of Brunei gained control in the 1500s. By the 18th century, the area was governed by local Malay elites under the control of the Sultanate. The Bidayuh faced increasing violence from the new rulers as well as from other Indigenous groups, whom the governors paid to capture members of other populations to be enslaved. The Biduyah fled toward Gua Sireh.
In 1841, the Sultan ceded control of the territory to James Brook, a British member of the East India Trading Company. The cave drawings date to at least 10 years before the start of British rule, but English testimonies from the subsequent decades relate the Bidayuh’s struggle against the region’s violent rulers under the Sultanate. The 1863 account of a British diplomat describes a battle at the cave in which a Malay leader ordered the Bidayuh to hand over their children, and upon refusal, the Malay chief dispatched 300 men to attack. Although two people were killed, the Bidayuh largely managed to retreat and escape through the cave.
The British also inflicted extreme violence against Sarawak’s Indigenous populations in the decades after the drawings were made. Some accounts from this period describe British violence, such as the destruction of villages, as necessary; others ignore it altogether.
Now, Taçon and fellow study author Jillian Huntley, another professor at Griffith University, are working with Indigenous communities in northern Australia to research and contextualize rock art there. While many examples of cave drawings in Southeast Asia are thousands of years old, the recent discovery could open the door for further research into newer figurative cave art. As they investigate similar works in Australia, Taçon and his team are hoping to be able to actually learn the names and life histories of the artists.