Rock Art in West Papua: The Mesmerizing Facts You Can’t Ignore

Rock Art in West Papua: The Mesmerizing Facts You Can't Ignore
Source: Minden Pictures

West Papua and Papua occupy coastal and inland areas, including the highlands. Voyagers made the earliest writings on Rock art in West Papua, traders, Dutch government officials or employees, and foreign explorers who crossed or stopped in areas containing these rock images.

Rock Art in West Papua: The Mesmerizing Facts You Can't Ignore
Source: Minden Pictures

Their notes included information about the existence of rock images and speculation about their meaning, which were often unscientific. Only recently have archaeologists or anthropologists recorded them with more accuracy and direction.

Coastal Areas of West Papua

The waters in the western part of Papua and West Papua have long been a shipping route for Europeans from western Indonesia to Australia or Papua New Guinea and then to the Pacific. Thus, it should be no surprise that they discovered the first rock engravings in Indonesia in West Papua and the Kei Archipelago regions.

Generally, white coral cliffs above sea level are home to rock art in West Papua. The coral cliffs, decorated with red pictures, are eye-catching and easily visible to passengers on ships passing through this area.

MacCluer Bay

At MacCluer Bay (now Berau Bay), north of Fakfak, on white limestone cliffs by the sea, many clear rock images are found from boats passing through this area. There have been several reports written about this rock image. 

Th. B. Leon, a merchant from Buitenzorg (now Bogor), reported the presence of rock drawings on small islands on the southern edge of MacCluer Bay during his voyage aboard the Egeron in 1878 (Tichelman & Gruyter 1944:12-13). 

Residents reported finding handprints and shapes made by Kasuak (demons) on cliffs towering above sea level.

DF van Braam Morris Report of Rock art in West Papua

A resident named DF van Braam Morris also reported that he saw various drawings on the coral walls on a small island east of Arguni Island, in the MacCluer Bay area, not far from the coast (Tichelman & Gruyter 1944:13:13 –14). Morris said that many Rock art in West Papua were engraved on the alcove floor, and they found small boats measuring 90 cm.

On his journey, Morris, accompanied by the kings of Rumbati and Pattipi, received information that the Papuan Mountains had placed the dried-up remains in a small boat in this nook. It seems that although this area has been under Islamic influence since the early 19th century, the tradition of burial in ships continues (Tichelman and Gruyter 1944:14)

First Publication of Rock art in West Papua

So far, writings on rock drawings on cliffs on the West Papua coast, especially in MacCLuer Bay, are generally unscientific. J. Röder was the first to publish various reports and interpretations of rock drawings in this region of a more scientific nature.

Röder was a member of the Leo Frobenius Expedition, which had previously researched the Island of Seram. This expedition in 1937 conducted research around the Bay of Berau. Niggemeyer, the expedition leader, conducted ethnological research in the interior of Tanjung Onin (Kapaur). In contrast, Röder and the expedition painter, A. Hahn, examined Rock art in West Papua and other prehistoric remains on the small islands of Berau Bay, between Kokas and Goras.

Röder published some articles on his research in the Berau Bay area. The writing is generally in German. However, his extraordinary book was published only in 1959. As a result of the outbreak of World War II, some of the images and data concerning rock drawings in Berau Bay were destroyed in a fire at the Frobenius Institute, causing the delay in publishing his book.

Using folklore and comparisons to other symbols known to the people in the area where they found the rock picture. Röder explores the forms shown and the origin, meaning, and purpose of this rock image. Drawings and photographs by A. Hahn supplement his writings. Röder also discussed the distribution of Rock art in West Papua styles in MacCluer Bay.