Exploring the Leang-Leang Caves of Maros, Sulawesi

Twenty-six red-and-white hand prints are plastered across the roof of the Leang Petta Kere cave in the Bantimurung subdistrict of Maros, South Sulawesi. At its center is a painting of a red boar, spanning half a meter in length. Apparently the cave’s previous inhabitants expected a pretty big meal to keep everyone fed.

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This is a relic of the middle Stone Age people, hunter gatherers who lived here around 5,000 BCE. In the native dialect, “leang” means “cave,” “petta” means “nobility,” and “kere” is “sacred”: so Noble, Sacred Cave. 

Leang Petta Kere is one of about a hundred caves that have been identified by the Makassar Center for Cultural and Heritage Preservation as once being home to hunter gatherers. Visiting this ancient site, 45 meters above sea level and a 30-meter climb up a ladder, feels surreal, almost like looking through a window into the life of prehistoric men. 

At the entrance to the cave forms a sort of antechamber, and it is here where the palm prints are found. The prints themselves are a dirty white, like the rest of the cave walls, and are outlined by a red halo. It’s believed that the people who created the prints put their hands up against the wall and spit chewed-up foliage to create the outlines. 

leang4Some of the prints are red, supposedly created by dipping the hand in water tinted with the chewed-up leaves and stamping them on the wall. 

The cave holds many surprises. At the end of a narrow entrance lies a fairly spacious living space. A niche about 1.2 meters in diameter is believed to have been the center of ceremonies for the cave’s inhabitants. 

There are dozens of other smaller niches, all connected to one another and forming a network of resting places. Inside, the cave protected the prehistoric humans from the scorching sun. The temperature inside remains a pleasant 27 degrees Celsius throughout the day. 

The exploration of the cave began in 1950 by Dutch archaeologists, who stumbled upon the caves that locals had been using to house their livestock. Finding the caves today is easy. The region boasts the world’s longest limestone mountain range, or karst landscape, and has caves scattered everywhere. The local residents have for years used these caves. 

Visiting Leang-Leang offers a new sensation for those bored of the daily traffic jams of Makassar’s busy streets. The road out of town is lined with beautiful irrigation canals and rows of tamarind trees, which bear fruit in April and June. After passing through the main gate to Leang-Leang, the scenery becomes very different. The tamarind groves give way to rice fields and limestone foothills. The water seeping through the limestone filters down to the rice paddies. 

And unlike the cave inhabitants who needed a whole hog, the guides will gladly settle for a bowl of meatball soup as a tip at the end of the tour. 

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