Ancient and Incredibly Tiny Rock Art Discovered in Island Caves, Including of Humans With Drums and Shields

The rock art on the island of Kasir. Australian National University

Archaeologists discovered 28 caves sites featuring rock art on the Indonesian island of Kisar. Their resemblance to art known to exist on a nearby island hints at a relationship between the two populations stronger than anyone had previously realized, according to a news release from the Australian National University.

Kisar itself is tiny, measuring only around 30 square miles and, until researchers from ANU recently arrived, had never been explored by archaeologists. A paper describing art at five of the sites was published earlier this month in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

The island of Kisar is largely surrounded by coralline limestone terraces, according to Atlas Obscura. Over long periods of time, the tide wore away portions of these structures until parts of them were formed into the caves where the paintings were discovered.

Paintings of what appear to be humans with shields. Australian National University

Lead archaeologist Sue O'Connor, a distinguished professor from ANU's School of Culture, History and Language, told ANU that Kisar is one of many islands in the region historically linked to the spice trade. She described the paintings as containing images of boats, dogs and horses, as well as what appear to be humans holding shields and playing drums.

It's possible that the original artists were Austronesian settlers. In addition to introducing cereal crops to the island, they may have been responsible for bringing domesticated animals like the dogs in the images, according to Atlas Obscura.

Intriguingly, O'Connor went on to say that some of the images are "remarkably similar" to ones that archaeologists have cataloged on Timor-Leste, the nation that occupies the eastern part of the nearby island of Timor. She described the tininess of the images as the distinctive shared feature—most are less than four inches across.

Any such relationship could go all the way back to the Neolithic period, approximately 3,500 years ago. But some of the motifs on Kisar's rock art also appeared on artifacts from northern Vietnam and southwest China from just 2,500 years ago, in what O'Connor and her co-authors refer to in the paper as the Metal Age. They believe this means Kisar's art was likely created around then as well.

"These paintings perhaps herald the introduction of a new symbolic system established about two thousand years ago, following on the exchange of prestige goods and the beginning of hierarchical societies," O'Connor told ANU.

What exactly the nature of that system might be, archaeologists won't know without future research. In the meantime, reported International Business Times, the rock art might prove an intriguing tourist attraction.