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On the trail of giant rats, scientists find ancient face carvings

Feb. 11, 2011
Courtesy of CSIRO
and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists look­ing for fos­sils of gi­ant rats have in­stead stum­bled in­to a med­ley of an­cient stone faces, carved in­to the walls of a well-known lime­stone cave in East Ti­mor.

The team of ar­chae­o­lo­gists and pal­eon­tolo­gists were work­ing in Lene Hara Cave on the north­east tip of the is­land na­tion in the Pa­ci­fic. 

Rock carvings at Le­ne Ha­ra Cave, East Timor. (Cre­dit: John Brush)


“Look­ing up from the cave floor at a col­league sit­ting on a ledge, my head torch shone on what seemed to be a weath­ered carv­ing,” said group mem­ber Ken Ap­lin, of Aus­trali­a’s Com­mon­wealth Sci­en­tif­ic and In­dus­t­ri­al Re­search Or­ga­niza­t­ion. “I shone the tor­ch around and saw a whole pan­el of en­graved pre­his­tor­ic hu­man faces on the wall of the ca­ve.

“The lo­cal landown­ers with whom we were work­ing were stunned by the find­ings. They said the faces had cho­sen that day to re­veal them­selves be­cause they were pleased by the field work we were do­ing.”

The Lene Hara carv­ings, or pet­ro­glyphs, are front­al, styl­ized faces each with eyes, a nose and a mouth. One has a cir­cu­lar head­dress with rays that frame the face. Sci­en­tists at the Uni­vers­ity of Queens­land es­ti­mat­ed the age of this “sun ray face” as 10,000 to 12,000 years old, us­ing a tech­nique called ura­ni­um iso­tope dat­ing. That would place the work in the late Ice Age.

Lene Hara cave has been vis­ited by ar­chae­o­lo­gists and rock art spe­cial­ists since the early 1960s to study its rock paint­ings, which in­clude hand sten­cils, boats, an­i­mals, hu­man fig­ures and lin­ear de­cora­t­ions. The age of the pig­ment art in Lene Hara is un­known but a frag­ment of lime­stone with traces of em­bed­ded red ochre has been dat­ed by Sue O’­Con­nor of Aus­tral­ian Na­tional Uni­vers­ity to over 30,000 years ago.

Al­though styl­ized en­grav­ings of faces oc­cur through­out Mel­a­ne­sia, Aus­tral­ia and the Pa­cif­ic, the Lene Hara pet­ro­glyphs are the only ex­am­ples that have been dat­ed to the Pleis­to­cene, re­search­ers said. No oth­er pet­ro­glyphs of faces are known to ex­ist any­where on the is­land of Ti­mor.

“Record­ing and dat­ing the rock art of Ti­mor should be a pri­or­ity for fu­ture re­search, be­cause of its cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance and val­ue in un­der­stand­ing the de­vel­op­ment of art in our past,” O’­Con­nor said. The find­ings have been pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal An­ti­qu­ity.


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Scientists looking for fossils of giant rats have instead stumbled into a medley of ancient stone faces, carved into the walls of a well-known limestone cave in East Timor. The team of archaeologists and palaeontologists were working in Lene Hara Cave on the northeast tip of the island nation. “Looking up from the cave floor at a colleague sitting on a ledge, my head torch shone on what seemed to be a weathered carving,” said researcher Ken Aplin of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. “I shone the torch around and saw a whole panel of engraved prehistoric human faces on the wall of the cave. “The local landowners with whom we were working were stunned by the findings. They said the faces had chosen that day to reveal themselves because they were pleased by the field work we were doing.” The Lene Hara carvings, or petroglyphs, are frontal, stylized faces each with eyes, a nose and a mouth. One has a circular headdress with rays that frame the face. Scientists at the University of Queensland estimated the age of this “sun ray face” as 10,000 to 12,000 years old, using a technique called uranium isotope dating. That would place it in the late Ice Age. Lene Hara cave has been visited by archaeologists and rock art specialists since the early 1960s to study its rock paintings, which include hand stencils, boats, animals, human figures and linear decorations. The age of the pigment art in Lene Hara is unknown but a fragment of limestone with traces of embedded red ochre has been dated by Sue O’Connor of Australian National University to over 30,000 years ago. Although stylised engravings of faces occur throughout Melanesia, Australia and the Pacific, the Lene Hara petroglyphs are the only examples that have been dated to the Pleistocene, researchers said. No other petroglyphs of faces are known to exist anywhere on the island of Timor. “Recording and dating the rock art of Timor should be a priority for future research, because of its cultural significance and value in understanding the development of art in our past,” O’Connor said. The findings have been published in the research journal Antiquity.