Sulawesi (Part 1: The Search)
Updated: Aug 24, 2018
After a successful Megalithology seminar presented at a South East Asian Surveying and Spatial Sciences conference, I was asked by a young GIS graduate a simple question, ‘If there remains so much archeological mystery, so many artefacts to discover, why not just go and discover it?’…Good question.
So the following evening, my good friend Steven and I contemplated this challenge over a bottle of single malt . By the bottles end the challenge of new discovery had been accepted. We planned a 14 day exploration and had a little over a month to prepare. Our scotch fuelled adventure needed to move quickly. We planned to go to the depths of the jungle and discover something novel, ideally without being killed on a scooter or attacked by a flesh-eating bacteria. Seemed like a good plan.
We developed a set of criteria for global site selection;
1. A remote area known for archaeological mystery, megalithic construction or lost civilisation.
a. Specifically, megaliths whose quarry or transportation cannot be replicated with technology of known earlier cultures.
2. Minimal tourists.
3. Cheap spicy food.
Sulawesi, in the beautiful jungles and highlands of northern Indonesia, would meet our specifications. A month later, with camera, mosquito repellent and astrolabe, we landed in Palu and our guide Petrus snatched us from the airport. We headed off in high spirits. We had two weeks to make a discovery.
We travelled through the night, stopping at a little roadside, dirt floor restaurant for a bite. The food was spicy and filling: salted fish, mushroom and vegetable soup with a little palm sugar baked treat. It was delightful. The owner, having not seen any western travellers for some time, gave us a detailed brief on past travellers who had stopped over the years, before photographing us and making extended and detailed enquiries of our own life experiences.
Back in our wagon, we continued into the jungle. It was a windy, dirt road filled with gullies. It straddled ridges and grazed drop offs overlooking the moonlight canopy. We slowly motored towards a lesser known megalithic site, the first of many. It was quite the idyllic and unspoiled welcome to remote Sulawesi. It was also less than hour before the hallucinations began.
Apparently, the mushrooms used in cooking are in many ways resembling local “shrooms” and occasionally, one or two find their way into the mix. Having never tried any hallucinogen other than ayahuasca, it was a little strange, somewhat concerning, but mostly amusing. Every shadow was, for a blink of an eye, a reptile scurrying into hiding, before mellowing into the stillness of the jungle.
From the back seat, we stayed quiet as our minds fogged and lizards ran. Our driver fill us in on local customs.
“Only a decade ago, this area was a hotspot of Islamic terrorism. But there hasn’t been a beheading in many years,” Petrus said. “But please don’t get out of the car if it stops".
OK, we thought, reasonable.
"And If asked what religion you are,” he said. “Pick something. Do not say atheist. Communists are atheist. They believe in nothing, so cause much pain, with no caused much pain in these lands”
Although the hallucinogens prevented my objection to the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent, my memory scrambled to times I'd traveled to ex-socialist countries in the past. In those places, no one is left with a fond memory. I felt the hatred they share for tyrannical government control, but had never made the connection before as to why communists were atheists and why it was important. While the lizards peered at me from the jungle with burning eyes, my brain floated among the thoughts of this place and the need for these people to have structure, know the motives of their governments and to question exactly what are the divine meta-rules for each of the religions that share this landscape. The mushrooms surly helped in my ability to daydream, however I stopped when I became concerned my traveling companions could hear my thoughts.
“Most important," Petrus said, "Don’t act strangely if stopped by police,” .
“I promise, nothing strange,” We said, as the mushrooms crocodiles ran across the road and disappeared into the jungle.
We arrived in the early hours with enough time to discuss imaginary anacondas, before a well earned 2 hours sleep.
The Megaliths of Sulawesi
In the morning, we began our many visits to the megalithic structures. Among silent fields stood solitary dwellings, old and uncomplicated, often accompanied by their wiry occupants. The first free standing megalithic site was a series of stone jars, similar to those found in Cambodia, and small, humanoid statues resembling prototype Easter Island megaliths. The jars were known as kalambas.
Date estimates on construction of the kalamba range thousands of years. In many places, the construction dates of megaliths are more precisely the dates of known human occupation. Like most megalithic construction, dating is almost impossible. Megaliths will appear similar if made ten thousand years before present, or at the beginning of the 19th century. In the following weeks we would see active megalithic communities standing newly carved stones alongside stones of their ancestors in the distant past. Within a few seasons the stones cut thousands of years apart are indistinguishable.
Why the statues resemble Easter Island megaliths or the kalamab resemble jars of Cambodia is still unknown. As is the location of the quarry sites. We were taken to several 'known' quarry sites, however they appeared potential quarry sites at best. They were indeed formed of similar rock, but no tool mark or unfinished megalith was found. The potential quarry was also over 12 km away over a series of creeks and rivers with no ramps, or transport routes. Did they carry the rocks this far and destroy the quarry? How? Why?
Petrus told us of the archaic and superstitious local legends of the megaliths: their godly mythology and unknown creators. He was a brilliant guide. He knew much of the local legend and told the story well. He understood the lay of the land and the problems posed by cutting and moving large stones. He had also read Magicians of the Gods by Graham Hancock, so the theme of my interest was not alien. (Bad pun warning)
After his talk, we bombarded him with questions about everything from the historic domestication of engraved animals to the black silt found immediately adjacent to the megaliths. He considered his answers, never made assumptions and engaged us keenly. Afterwards, we had coffee and he told us how fortunate he was to have people so passionate about his island and his opportunity to learn from us as we learned from him. I assured him there were many around the world who shared his interest in this natural beauty and the hidden mysteries kept in these stones.
Our friendship was instantaneous. We told him our scotch fuelled purpose was to uncover a secret and make a discovery, and his eyebrows rose.
“Let’s see what we can find,” he said, in his unwavering modest demure.
We continued to more megalithic sites and noticed many common themes. They are often titled, broken, buried, at least partially. Even when set upright, the carvings continued into the ground. Why are they usually buried? This could imply a large-scale sediment layer was deposited after the megaliths placement or burried for a cultural purpose? Natural wear of the megaliths did not extend much below the projection of the natural ground surface. This could imply that not only was the site buried during construction or shortly after, but the time between being buried and unearthed again was vast.
There were megaliths throughout the jungle, the rice fields, cliff edges and most everywhere, without obvious purpose. They aligned to no star pattern or geometric shape we could decipher. The guide pamphlet (we took from a service station) confirmed their positions as 'random'. The difficulty of shaping and moving megaliths made me feel an unknown motive held weight over random position.
Some of the kalamba jars were broken, which presented a mystery. The stone was typically granite and extremely uniform and unflawed. I imagine the master builders who shaped such stone also knew how to choose a uniform slab. However, the breaks were also uniform in the disbursement of broken shards.
The breaks were very old. Some of the broken kalamba walls are still being uncovered. They also did not occur along obvious fault lines. It was like a giant had snapped the sides off like a child breaking open an Easter egg. Without a hydraulic jack, it is difficult to imagine the breaks as manmade. If they were, why just break off the edges and not smash them to pieces?
Most towns in Sulawesi speak almost no English at all, however a local man with fluent English shared a black coffee with us on the side of the road one day. He had speculated the breaks in the kalamba are conducive of a vibration, not a blast. He proposed an ancient volcanic event and the 350db volcanic blasts could cause such fractures. As he detailed his theory, citing papers of ultrasonic sub surface cracks in brittle materials, I realised he had considered this more than I had anticipated. A vibration theory was interesting, but finding supporting information was more difficult.
(If you read this kind stranger, please send me a message.)
[NEXT: Part 2: The Discovery]