Exploring Some of the Earliest Evidence of Human Occupation in Island Southeast Asia

In 2007, despite mounting civil unrest, Timor-Leste established its first National Park connecting a number of endangered bird areas and encompassing a large section of the Coral Triangle, an underwater zone believed to hold the greatest diversity of marine life on Earth. Emelyn Rude is a Young Explorer studying the balance between environmental conservation and economic development in a nation of newly restored independence.


After a few days wandering about the Cooperative and taking in the wonder that is Jaco Island, we decided to finally hike up to the ancient caves in the hills nearby.

The View from Just inside Lene Hara Cave. Photo: Emelyn Rude

A worldly Australian woman who was working as a community builder in Timor, after working as a community builder in Sri Lanka then a community builder in Somalia then a community builder in Afghanistan, had informed us the night before the we needed to take a guide.

If not, she warned us, as uninvited foreigners we would taint the sanctity of the cave and the inhabitants of Tutalua would have to undertake a resource-heavy, three-day ritual to remove the traces of our contamination.

Into the Cave! Photo: Emelyn Rude
Into the Cave! Photo: Emelyn Rude

Not wanting to cause a ruckus, for $10 we chartered a solemn local man name Paolo to give us a tour of Lene Hara. Just as our Australian advisor predicted, the cave was an awe inspiring place.

First explored by western archaeologists in the 1960s, more recent carbon-dating has revealed human occupation of the sites to have occurred some 30,000 to 35,000 years ago, making these caves some of the earliest evidence of human occupation in island South East Asia.

Lene Hara Cave Painting
Geometric Sunburst at the entrance of Lene Hara. Photo: Emelyn Rude

While the determination of age came from shell deposits, the real wonder of Lene Hara, and other nearby locations such as Ile Kére Kére, comes from the beautiful cave art the adorns the walls around the entrance.

Dated between 2,000 and 6,000 years ago, there are at least two dozen small drawings scattered from floor to ceiling, depicting sunbursts, abstract geometric patterns, and small creatures Paolo claimed to be kangaroos.

Kangaroos or Turtles? Photo: Emelyn Rude
Kangaroos or Turtles? Photo: Emelyn Rude

While we showed our wonder at these ancient cave paintings by ooh-ing and awe-ing and snapping photographs, Paolo showed his wonder by smoking and chatting on his cell phone and demonstrating the best ways to scare the bats from the cave roof.

There are supposed to be at least half a dozen caves like this around Tutuala, each with varying ease of accessibility, and I’m sure Paolo has shown visitors like us to them more times than he can count (not sure how many cleansing occurred after his tours though.)

Paolo exits the cave Photo: Emelyn Rude
Paolo makes his way out of the cave. Photo: Emelyn Rude

As Timor pushes itself further into the global market, there will undoubtedly be more and more crossroads like this: an act that causes contamination in one mode of viewing the world brings in much needed income in another.

Looking at this from a personal perspective, I’m not complaining about my $10 tour of one of the most fascinating and remote archeological sites I’ve ever visited. As one interested in Timor and the future of Nino Konis Santana National Park, I just wonder if at only $10 Paolo was selling himself, and the Lene Hara cave, very short.

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Meet the Author
Emelyn Rude is a recent graduate of Harvard University, where she brought the social back to the sciences as a Social Studies concentrator. Although currently residing in New York City, a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant is helping her to return to the archipelago of her childhood to study the balance between environmental conservation and economic development in Timor-Leste. Follow the full project here: http://rudeadventures.wordpress.com/