Source : The Jakarta Post

The term ‘rock art’ in archaeology refers to markings made by early humans placed in natural places, typically vertical stone surfaces. These earliest artforms of humanity can be found mostly in caves or partly enclosed rock shelters all over the world. The presence of these mesmerizing stencils in West Papua indicates a long history of human settlements in the region spanning thousands of years.

The oldest known cave painting ever discovered is a life-sized picture of a Sulawesi warty pig painted at least 45,500 years ago. The painting was found in 2017 in Leang Tedongnge, South Sulawesi, and the discovery was published in the journal Science Advances in January 2021.

Rock arts of West Papua

Source : Minden Pictures

The oldest known record of the discovery of rock arts in Papua was written in the diary of Johannes Keyts. In 1678, while on the journey from Banda to the west coast of West Papua, Keyts passed a cliff at Speelman Gulf that was covered by red paintings. Alas, this cliff has not been rediscovered ever since (Arifin and Delange, 2004, p. 49).

Today, discovered rock art sites in Papua and West Papua are spread along the coastal, inland, as well as highland areas of the region. According to Gambar Cadas Prasejarah di Indonesia, published by the Ministry of Education and Culture, the sites can be grouped into three major areas: South Misool, Berau Bay, and Kaimana.

  • South Misool Area

Jayapura Archaeological Center has identified at least nine rock art sites in this area:

  1. Muslim Cave
  2. Fafangaulu Cave
  3. Fafanlap Cave
  4. Sunbayo Cave
  5. Sunmaleleatsa Cave
  6. Manikaipopoatsa Cave
  7. Bayampoptol/Kajipo 2 Cave
  8. Dapunlol Cave
  9. Kafiailololu Cave

The cave painting typology in this area mainly shows humans, animals, equipment, hands, geometric, and some unrecognizable figures. The depiction of human figures in these sites varies from straddling and/or dancing poses to human faces or masks and anthropomorphic figures. Animal figures drawn include dolphins, salamander fish, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, shrimps, seahorses, manta rays, turtles, geckos, lizards, snakes, and birds. 

Other images depicted in these sites include prehistoric tools such as boomerangs, drums, spears, chains, bows and arrows, boats, and ships, as well as numerous drawings of hands, both in positive and negative colorations.

  • Berau Bay Area

Currently, there are 16 identified rock art sites in the Berau Bay area, West Papua. Some are located on smaller islands scattered across the area. The identified sites are:

  1. Tapurarawo Cave
  2. Guramo Cliff
  3. Wamarai Cliff
  4. Andamata Lama Cliff
  5. Mbosier Cliff
  6. Mbowier Cliff
  7. Basu’umata Cliff
  8. Endamir Cave
  9. Etanusa Cave
  10. Soraa Cave
  11. Sosoraweru Cave
  12. Sasiramo Cave
  13. Apopohuatmata Cave
  14. Urwan Cave
  15. Ondarewa Cave
  16. Tig Tig Cave

The current conditions of the rock arts in this area are quite concerning. Many factors are at play here. The weather-eroded stencils are mainly the ones found in smaller islands like Safar, Taminunusa, Mernusa, Farek, Menin, and Mariein, as well as along the southern coast of Berau Bay. In these areas, the paintings are too damaged; they can only be identified as faded red blotches without any comprehensible figures.

As for the paintings found inside the caves and niches, they were primarily damaged when the rock surfaces peeled off. However, other factors like salt intrusion and water flow also damaged the stencils.

Evidence of vandalism is also present, especially in sites located near local people’s trail. Oil-painted graffiti, scratches from sharp objects, and pencil outlines defining the shape of some human figures are among the most common man-made damage evident in the sites.

  • Kaimana Area

Kaimana and Triton Bay are two areas with the most identified rock arts in West Papua. In total, no less than 26 sites have been discovered. These sites are:

  1. Bitsyari Bay
  2. Weretwarom
  3. Erertari
  4. Netnarai
  5. Munfuritnus
  6. Munfuruti
  7. Sasereinabo 1
  8. Sasereinabo 2
  9. Sasereinabo 3
  10. Sasereinabo 4
  11. Sasereoyomo
  12. Ermamere
  13. Nusuamoi
  14. Refis
  15. Omborcone Bay
  16. Memnemnambe
  17. Memnemba
  18. Tumberawesi
  19. Omborcone Island
  20. Warefora 1
  21. Warefora 2
  22. Warefora 3
  23. Warefora 4
  24. Irisjawe
  25. Ganggasa
  26. Tamarom

The paintings are found in niches and limestone cliffs overseeing this area. Many of the drawings are still intact, but many others are also faded or even erased. Weather conditions, vandalism, and water damage are prevalent in this area.

Figures drawn in this area include human figures without arms and legs, geometric shapes, anthropomorphic figures, human figures, fish, jagged circles, lizards, hand stencils, and numerous incomprehensible color blotches.


The mesmerizing rock arts of West Papua are evidence of early human settlements in the area thousands of years ago. These ancient drawings also served as evidence of human migration in this part of the world. By preserving this little piece of art frozen in time, we are preserving the very proof of our existence in this world.


Arifin, Karina and Delange, Philippe. 2004. Rock Art in West Papua. Paris: UNESCO.

Harry, Widianto, et. al. 2015. Gambar Cadas Prasejarah Indonesia. Jakarta: Direktorat Pelestarian Cagar Budaya dan Permuseuman.