Join me in my wanderings around the globe via these online ramblings in far off places....

Monday, 25 April 2011

Ancient Art of West Papua


West Papua Title Slide

Just below the Bird’s Head (the western tip of the island of New Guinea) in the Indonesian province of West Papua, in the McClure Gulf, is a small village known as Arguni. This is the regency of Fak Fak – pronounced Fuk Fuk. Arguni sits in a bay dotted with limestone outcrops and uplifts. These tiny limestone islands are not uncommon through out the Asia-Pacific. Similar bays filled with similar islands can be found in Marovo Lagoon in the Solomon Islands, or in the Ang Thong Marine Park off the coast of Thailand for example. But what is of particular interest on these limestone outcrops of ancient reefs, is the artwork that, in time gone by has been painted on their surfaces.


imageThe Bird’s Head is the western tip of the island of New Guinea, the regency of Fak Fak sits just below on the McClure Gulf


ArguniTypical limestone outcrop in the area around Kokas, Andamata and Arguni


Arguni, Fak FakThe village of Arguni, Fak Fak


Andamata Village, Fak FakKids from the village of Andamata


For some reason in our human nature, ancient rock art stirs debate and theory. Similarities in ancient rock art styles in geographically distant locations has spawned claims of ancient Egyptian fleets or Phoenician vessels encircling the globe, leaving their mark in rock art. Others have gone as far as to claim that certain rock art done by primitive peoples describes the arrival of visitors from outer space. Issues arise in dating rock art. Can you effectively date the art or are you simply dating the rock it is drawn upon? Controversial techniques such as dating the age of mud wasp nests attached to the rock on top of the art, as was used in West Australia’s Kimberley, can apparently give indications back tens of thousands of years and contribute to dating rock art. Indeed it is in the Kimberley of Western Australia where some of the most controversial art is found.


imageTypical “panel” of rock art between Arguni and Andamata


Many a researcher has spent many a day, studying and theorising over the ancient art of the Kimberley. Within the different styles of art found in the Kimberley, the style drawing the most interest is the Bradshaw or Gwion art. Bradshaw was a pastoralist who located and described much of this style, whilst Gwion is an Aboriginal language word for a small bird, believed in their mythology to have painted this art with his beak. Some researchers go as far as to separate the Gwion and the Bradshaw as two separate styles. Without a doubt, the art most commonly recognised as Gwion-Bradshaw covers many different styles over a large time frame. Without entering into the great debate it is fairly safe to say that the older of the Gwion-Bradshaw style originates from around 15,000 – 25,000 BCE. Many theorists will claim it as even older, but that time frame falls into the most acceptable theories. The fact that following generations have painted over older existing art complicates the issue as well.


Gwion-Bradshaw art on Anjo Peninsula, the KimberleyA pair of “Tasselled Bradshaw” figures, near Mangalalu-Truscott on the Anjo Peninsula, are classic examples of the Gwion-Bradshaw style in Western Australia.


Gwion-Bradshaw art on Anjo Peninsula, the KimberleyA great selection of figures in the Gwion-Bradshaw style photographed near Mangalalu-Truscott in 2007 on the Anjo Peninsula in the Kimberley region of Western Australia


So what has this got to do with the limestone islets of the McClure Gulf? Well you see much of the older art of the McClure Gulf bears striking resemblance to the Gwion-Bradshaw art of the Kimberley. Grahame Walsh, respected Gwion-Bradshaw researcher described many variations of Gwion-Bradshaw's and mapped them to a time scale – this time scale and level of variations matches almost identically what can be found in West Papua. But why is this so? Quite simply in the time frame that we are talking about, Australia and New Guinea were linked as the great continent of Sahul. Sea Levels were lower, and modern DNA research shows us that the earliest migrations across to the Sahul Shelf from Java were the common fore-fathers of both the Aborigine in Australia and the Papuans in New Guinea.


Sahul Shelf MapA map showing the continent of Sahul, joining Australia and New Guinea prior to the last major climate change that saw sea levels rise and Australian and New Guinean development separate and differentiate with Australia becoming hotter and drier and New Guinea becoming hotter and wetter.


Graham Walsh's Art Time Scale (Property of Graham Walsh and his publishers)Grahame Walsh, one of the most respected Gwion-Bradshaw researchers used the above table to give a timeline to the different art styles found in the Kimberley, which mimics the styles found in West Papua up to Walsh’s Erudite period (Table by Grahame Walsh)


Papuan Bradshaw-Gwion  vs  Kimberley Bradshaw-GwionA Tasselled Bradshaw type figure in the McClure Gulf near Arguni, beside a drawing of a typical Kimberley styling from the Bradshaw Foundation


Arguni Rock ArtTasselled Bradshaw's, Boomerang Stencils, Stick Figures, all of the same kind found in the Kimberley albeit no longer as well preserved on the limestone in McClure Gulf as one would find on the sandstone of the Kimberley


So looking at the Sahul shelf & the great continent it’s easy to see why the art of McClure Gulf and the art of the Kimberley had the same roots. Together with the DNA studies mapping human migration, it all adds up. But then what happened? The art changed. After a disconnected period the Wandjina style appears in the Kimberley and other styles appear in the Papua region. What happened was major climate change. The ice age had ended, sea levels were rising the whole landscape was changing dramatically. Imagine the effect this would have on the populations and the “communities” they existed in. The controversy of the origin of Gwion-Bradshaw art in the Kimberley has been compounded by people like Walsh using their time line to differentiate between style, or more specifically, Walsh’s use of the name “Aboriginal Epoch” to describe the timing of the Wandjina style. This has led to numerous theories of a mysterious pre-Aborigine “race” that produced the Gwion-Bradshaw and then disappeared to be replaced by later migration of the Aborigine who produced the Wandjina. This has been compounded by several Aboriginal communities claiming no link to the ancient Gwion-Bradshaw style of art. This is not universal amongst the Kimberley Aboriginal people however. Although several high profile personalities have been vocal on the matter, and various subjects spoken to and interpreted in the writings of people like Walsh claimed no link, the elders of the Wunambal-Gaambera around Kulumburu retold many stories linking the Gwion-Bradshaw with their dreamtime oral history to me as recently as 2007.


WandjinaThe Wandjina style found in the Kimberley, like this depiction from the Anjo Peninsula came after the period of climate change and sea levels rising and is not found in the Papua region


So basically what happened between the Gwion-Bradshaw art with the similar styles in Papua and Australia and then the differentiation of styles between the two regions is all linked into these major climatic events. Along with climate change came trans-migration between the two areas, resettling to accommodate the changes in weather, moving further inland over generations as sea levels began to rise. Changing diets and hunting habits as the environment changed, all changing the populations. Again modern DNA research supports this, although there is still debate about how many entry points there were, there was never a pre-Aborigine “race” that disappeared, it was all part of the migrations and trans-migrations matching with the events of climate change over tens of thousands of years. And the art matches this. Whilst tens of thousands of years ago they were all painting along the lines of the Gwion-Bradshaw, by the time the Wandjina style came into the Kimberley, Papua had been separated by water for thousands of years and their contemporary styles varied from what was appearing now in the Kimberley. So mean while over in Papua time moved on. The local Papuans continued painting, bringing in elements of their own developing mythology. One figure appearing in their art is known as “Maturo”, a half man-half lizard.


MatutoThe long tailed Maturo figures found in Papuan art, half man-half lizard, is of a much later period then the earlier Gwion-Bradshaw found both in Papua and the Kimberley region in Australia (image from Papua Cultural Heritage Foundation)


zxzdsc_0303Long Tailed Maturo figures, of a later period then the Bradshaw-Gwion figures, near Arguni


The Papuan people of the McClure Gulf didn’t believe in burying their dead, they were placed in the limestone caves along the cliffs, the same locations that house generations of Rock Art. Today very few Papuans live in the area of Kokas-Arguni. Legend has it that the original tribes were all but wiped out by tribal war. This bloody history also lends its self to the myth that the rock art is painted in the blood of war victims, and that hand stencils were from severed limbs held as stencils celebrating the victory of war. Today most of the inhabitants of Kokas and Arguni are Buginese or Makassans from Sulawesi who transmigrated in the last few hundred years. Others came as part of Suharto’s Transmigration programs and more recently with the lure of work from the oil and gas operations popping up along the McClure Gulf. The shiny silver domes of the numerous village mosques stand in contrast to the caves filled with ancient rock art only a few hundred metres apart.


Burial Caves, ArguniCave burials were used by the original Papuan residents of this area (known as Tapurarang to the Papuans)


Burial Caves, ArguniSkeletal remains litter the many limestone caves around Kokas in Fak Fak


Kokas, Bamboo Dancethe Bamboo Dance, where participants dance and dodge moving poles of Bamboo is common through out South East Asia including in the Philippines and Cambodia and other parts of Indonesia. It is not however found in the repertoire of ethnic Papuans.


Kokas, Fak FakA Kokas Man dances in the national colours of Indonesia symbolically celebrating the separation from Colonial Powers and the independence of Indonesia


Japanese WWII Bunker, KokasThe tiny township of Kokas was used as a secret underground command centre by Imperial Japanese forces during World War II


Military Graves, KokasThe military cemetery in Kokas reminds us that long after the end of WWII and the independence of Indonesia, conflict has continued. Both the 27 years of conflict in Timor that ended in 1999 and the ongoing conflict through out Papua has taken lives, even in a small town like Kokas.


So when one takes into account the facts that we have available regarding human migrations, climate change, changing sea levels and the like, it is really not that mysterious that similar rock art styles are found in both the North West of Australia and in places like the McClure Gulf in Indonesia’s Papua Province.


Papuan Rock Art, Arguni

Photographs of the traditional rock art on the Anjo Peninsula around Mangalalu-Truscott in Western Australia were taken with permission of the traditional owners, the Wunambal Gaambera people, in 2007.

How Do I get There - Header

So you want to go to Kokas and Arguni?

  • Get yourself into either Bali or Jakarta as entry points to Indonesia
  • Take a domestic flight – there are several airlines available -  to West Papua Province, you may have to fly through Sorong or Jayapura to end up in Fak Fak
  • Fak Fak has only one real decent hotel, the Grand Papua. It’s nothing special but its comfortable. The food is pretty good here too.
  • From Fak Fak you want to get a car/driver/guide to get you to Kokas. The hotel can arrange or visit a local tour agent. Allow a couple of hours driving time and the road will take you right to Kokas
  • From Kokas simply head down to the wharf and negotiate a long boat to take you out to the art work. Allow 2-3 hours.
  • There is a guest house or two in Kokas but it’s just as easy to do it as a day trip and return to Fak Fak for the night.


View Kokas in a larger map


Arguni, McClure Gulf, West Papua, Indonesia




Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Mapia : Middle of No Where


Mapia Atoll - Header


Mapia Atoll, Kepulauan Mapia in Bahasa Indonesian, just north of the Equator, is about as remote as it gets. This tiny island group has also been named the Freewill Islands and St David's Islands over the years. Indonesia’s “outermost” island group, sharing an ocean border with the independent nation-state of Palau in the Micronesian geographic region, the tiny islands of Pegun, Fanildo and Bras that make up the above-high-water-land of Mapia Atoll are very isolated. There’s not much information out there about these islands, there’s a Wikipedia page in Bahasa Indonesian for Pulau Bras, which has less words and info then I have given already, and not much else.


Sat Grab - Mapia Atoll - with LabelsKepulauan Mapia or Mapia Atoll is about as remote as one can get


UntitledAn 1899 New York Times reference to the island group


The particularly small Pulau Fanildo together with the only slightly more substantial Pulau Pegun and Pulau Bras, each have a lighthouse on them, marking the roughly triangular shape of the atoll. Fanildo in the North West, Bras in the North East and Pegun in the South. The lighthouses are apparently only occasionally manned by work parties from Indonesian Maritime authorities. All information points to these islands being uninhabited. There is a reference out there that I came across that the people who USED to live here spoke a Micronesian language similar to the language of Chuuk to the north in what is now the Federated States of Micronesia, but that was about that. I had planned a landing on the southern tip of Pegun where I know dive boats had visited and commented on good reef there, but when we arrived the weather and wind conditions made that end of the atoll unpleasant, so we headed north for some shelter. Approaching the northern end of Bras, smoke rising camp fire style alerted us to the potential presence of people, and a quick look through the binoculars showed a substantial jetty. It seems Mapia was not uninhabited after all……..


Approaching Mapia Atoll - first viewsLooking from the north back onto the North Eastern tip of Bras, this infrastructure seems to indicate this is NOT an uninhabited island after all


Approaching Mapia Atoll - first views IIFirst view of the “uninhabited” (?) island as we come ashore


Landing next to the substantial yet dilapidated and unusable jetty, it quickly became apparent there was a substantial settlement here. And in a very short period after stepping foot ashore it became even more apparent that this was not just any settlement, this was an Indonesian Military Outpost. On this extreme outermost island on the strategic border of the Indonesian Archipelago, it shouldn’t actually have been that surprising that the Indonesian Military has a surveillance and patrol outpost right out here in the middle of no where.


Mapia Atoll BuildingsThe houses on the foreshore were really not that different to what you would find in just about any other Indonesian coastal village


Mapia Island Bird JettyThe jetty on the island seemed to serve no other purpose but provide a roost for Boobies, Terns and other sea birds


Village Offie, MapiaThe sign outside this unassuming building clearly defines our location; the Regency of Supiori, the District of West Supiori, the Village of Mapia, the office of the Secretary of Mapia


I was immediately welcomed and taken to the Naval Base Commander to seek permission to formally land. I was also cautioned that no photographs of the military installation itself would be permitted. The sprawl of this community surprised me. There were easy 200 people living here. There was a substantial school and many other facilities. It was old and run down but not a lot different to most remote Indonesian communities. No body spoke English, but with my broken Bahasa and their broken English communication was not that difficult. The inhabitants where all either Navy, Marine or other Government workers and their immediate families. Some of them indicated they had lived here for 4 years. There was some kind of advanced long range infra red surveillance device on a tripod facing out to sea and there were radar and radio towers as well. A large barge mounted pile driver lay anchored in the lagoon seemingly ready to one day start construction of a more modern jetty facility, perhaps? The sailors, marines and their families were friendly and super surprised to receive sudden visitors, I am sure it broke up the boredom of life that would certainly impose itself on one living in a remote place like this.


Mapia Dried FishA group of Indonesian Marines passed with this wheel barrow full of dried fish. Normally a staple through out Indonesia, I imagine with very little choice on Mapia, dried fish would be vital.


Mapia KidsMapia kids at play with floating “toys” made from oceanic flotsam and jetsam



Mapia ViewsLooking out over Mapia’s Lagoon from Pulau Bras


Along the main row of buildings there appeared what I would describe as an old plantation house. Row after row of ancient coconut tree indicated that at some time in the past this was a copra plantation. If these islands had always been part of what is now Indonesia it could have been Dutch, if it was linked to Micronesia or linked to what is now Papua New Guinea it could well have been German. Another surprise was a Japanese memorial, obviously some kind of link to WWII. After returning I searched for information linking Mapia Atoll to WWII and what I found was surprising. Mapia Atoll played a role in the Battle of Morotai. As the Japanese were being pushed back across the Pacific and the invasion of Morotai began, Japanese bases on Mapia could track and report on maritime traffic (ironically the islands are still being used today for that purpose outside of war). 1,200 US  troops from the 2nd Battalion, 167th Infantry Regiment and attached units were landed on Pulau Pegun on November 15, 1945. 1,200 troops is a HUGE number for this tiny island. By the next day they were on Bras, and by the 18th the 172 Japanese troops of the 36th Infantry Division based on Mapia Atoll were defeated after putting up strong resistance. It’s hard to believe having seen the size of these seemingly insignificant island that 1200 troops fought an intense three day battle here.


Japanese WWII Monument MapiaThis Japanese monument led me to uncover the military history of these remote islands during WWII


Old Plantation House, MapiaWhat appears to be an old plantation house, possibly Dutch


Mapia LocalsLocal military and their family look on with mild amusement at the sudden arrival of visitors in their remote community


Mapia  DogWoof


Mapia Deep Water BerthAt some point there was a reasonably deep water wharf berth connected to the main island


Well so much for an inhabited island in the middle of no where. Well it is still the middle of no where, but it seems these seemingly insignificant islands have so much more to them. The plantation house, the WWII History and the current Naval facility where all unexpected. Such an amazing travel experience made up of the unexpected!


Bye Bye from MapiaBye Bye from Mapia Atoll….


Leaving MapiaLeaving Mapia Atoll, I would never have guessed what surprises existed here…..



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So you want to go to Mapia Atoll?

  • There is no real easy way to get to Mapia Atoll unless you take some kind of organised vessel based tour or you have your own boat
  • Several live aboard dive operations, operating around West Papua/Papua often schedule sailings the incorporate Mapia Atoll
  • Expedition cruise companies, such as Orion Expeditions, will often schedule visits to Mapia




Map picture






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