• Mr Keith

Sulawesi (Part4) Bada Valley to Toraja

Bada! Toraja! & The spear that destroyed Communism.

Toraja: Tombs in the making

Bada is a small hamlet settled among misty mountains and cacao plantations famous for its endemic flowers, birds and its amazing megaliths. The megaliths at Bada more closely resemble Easter Island than those to the north or south, but in all other respects appear of similar construction. Again the giant kalamba are broken as if by a giant’s hand. The massive megaliths are again tilted at an angle because they are too heavy to correct without machines. Like many megalithic sites, there are partially finished megaliths in every corner of the valley, although never at quarries.

Perhaps 80-90% of all megaliths we encountered were unfinished. Was the culture that created these monsters swept from the earth mere moments after initiating the program of megalithic construction?

One megalith of interest to us was known as the Mother, so called because her hands reside at her genitalia. Her story was one of seeding the earth with life. Petrus told the tales well and we continued the conversation that night. The locals had many versions of the story, as we had found with most of the megaliths mythology. The orthodox mythology frequently represented the records from a single published source and not the local folklore. In many versions the mother had raised humans and protected them, wanting them to succeed and progress with civilisation.

Later that night, as we told mythology stories and reviewed our images, Steven noticed the hands of ‘The Mother’ bordered a face. A face being birthed, or so we thought. It was difficult to see because grass and vines had grown around the base of the statue. We asked some locals, but they had never heard that the mother was giving birth. This was an interesting observation.

After clearing (and contrast tweaked) a face could be seen between the hands.

This 'mother' story now became almost archetypal of many ancient mythologies, from the biblical Nephilim to Hercules, the gods interbreeding with mankind. Only in the official mythology she raises the humans as their mother, not gives birth to them. Perhaps that detail had been lost.

The next morning, we revisited the site, cleared the debri and took some overlapping images for a 3D model on my phone, a handy way to preserve data. At the top of a mountain in the Indonesian jungle, we had reception, so we sent these images to our Government Ranger to confirm with the Universities of Sulawesi. Connectivity at its best.

The face was quite clear now and weirdly catlike. Some of the myths from Napa, a megalithic site only 2 days walk away, had human/god or animal hybrid elements. If it was indeed a face, possibly it was a reference to the giant cats or palm civet that once roamed these mountains. Or perhaps the interbreeding element of this myth had been lost over the generations.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t find more on the mythology from the locals, so the birthing mother hypothesis remains a curious, conceivable conjecture.

During our morning walks through the rice fields we also noticed the drainage patterns surrounding the megaliths were conducive to the topographic pattern we had used to find buried pottery. The land raised around the megalithic site, yet had been cut away in the immediate vicinity of the megalith to allow exposure. If our theory was correct, we should be able to find the most likely site for pottery fairly easily. At the 'buffalo' megalith the drainage lines ran in all directions from the megalith, although the megalith itself was much deeper than the rice fields, indicating the surrounding area had once been much higher. Exactly what we were looking for.

The drainage lines were cut deep adjacent to the megalith, it was not long before shards of pottery were found in the walls of the channels 800mm below the surface. It seemed our theory used for predicting the location of buried pottery is sound in rice fields as well as jungle mountains.


Toraja is a wonder for curious researchers and tourist alike. It weighs heavy in unique and distinct cultural practices, art and mythology. Its people are friendly and honest. Its megaliths vast. It is a wonderful place.

Torajan burial chambers

Many tourists come for the continued ancient practices relating to death and afterlife. A deceased family members corpse may be exhumed, dressed in clothes, positioned within a family home and then, well, life continues, so to speak. It is not uncommon to have a 10-year-old corpse unearthed for a wedding or to be sitting at a dinner table, although locals told us this practice has grown more flamboyant in recent generations to accommodate the fascination of tourists.

The original practice was to respect the dead by sacrifice of a buffalo. Some people may warrant 2 buffalos, others dozens. If the family could not afford the buffalo, then the dead could not be buried. They lived among the family as a robed corpse until the buffalo could be bought and sacrificed.

The Torajan houses are also a novel curiosity with hidden ancient undertones. The traditional houses are boat-shaped. Mythological motives are to respect the god who came from across the shore in a boat shaped like the Torajan house. They closely resemble the sacrificial boats found in the tombs of Pharaohs, actually even the restaurant menus had a Pharaonic feel.

Asking around, we found that even in a small, cultural microcosm like Toraja, the particulars of myth and legend are diverse. They seem to have grown and eroded, morphed and melded through time. Our cultural guide, a friend and wonderfully passionate local schoolteacher named Melly, told us of many variants. The discussion turned to the rewriting of historic mythology. We could not tell which elements were lost to Dutch colonisation, and which elements survived because of congruence with Christian paradigms. Regardless, boat houses of Toraja are certainly an interesting subject for proponents of cultural diffusion, the theory that certain ancient cultures had intermixed before known sea faring nations existed.

A god or human-god hybrid arriving by boat from across the ocean in a time of flood to reseed civilisation finds resonance with many distant religions, from Biblical to Incan. The comparable tale may imply a commonality of the cataclysmic event, direct cultural contact, or both.

The great captivation I found with Torajan megalithic mythology was that it is practicing. Unlike most megalithic sites that are a fading memory of a colonised kingdom or supposition of academia, this culture has a practising megalithic community. The most notable is the standing stones, still carved and stood in new positions to celebrate a cultural milestone, such as a notable death.

Many questions have arisen regarding the perpetuation of these practices. Were they the original megalithic culture, or did the Torajan’s arrive to a megalithic site and take up their own interpretation and practices? There does not appear to be any significant difference in measurable attributes of a modern or ancient megalith. The rocks are similar in shape, size, tool marks and position, etc. The only indication of a cultural interruption between the construction of the ancient megalithic culture and the modern imitation, or worship culture, is the epoch of hard metal development, as indicated in the museum of Makassar. Apparently, there was no hard-metal production in the original megalithic era, and no explanation is given to how the millions of tons of rock were quarried. It is fascinating to see comparable standing stones of Europe and North Asia still under production in a surviving mountain culture.

Toraja’s burial sites are also intriguing . They cut tombs from solid rock and adorn them with artistic reliefs and offerings. Frequently, we saw bamboo scaffolding under construction for a new grave site or old sites covered in moss and filled with bones, evidence of a family no longer able to care for the resting place of their ancestors.

As a proponent of active investigation of ancient cultural capacity, I was curious to see the rate at which a tomb is carved. I often doubt the validity of orthodox ancient construction time frames; they are often too short to be remotely plausible. Here, not only was the time frame well established (you can pay to have your own tomb hollowed in 2 years) but I could carve a tomb myself! Well, a few chips in the right direction anyway.

Some local men allowed me to share the work and test my tomb-shaping capacity. It was poor. The rock is brittle and uniform with fissile splinters, making shaping and chiselling relatively easy compared to granite or andesite, however I clearly lacked the skill and experience of these men.

In only a few moments, I was uncomfortable. The impact required to dislodge rock is great, so many soft strikes are not an as effective as one, violent strike. As each strike passed, I felt the moment of a bone splintering miss-strike drawing near. I have a deep respect for those who work this rock, who give respect to death and keep belief alive.

On our final days we visited some schools to support their English programs and provide tutoring for an upcoming National speech contest that was an enthusiastic hobby of our good friend Melly. We spent time talking with locals, eating at traditional markets, swimming in waterfalls and even a few stops at a hospital to cure the flesh eating bacteria that had infected Stevens hand. (After touching a 'cursed' megalith..what can i say)

Afterwards, we visited a small village an hour from Toraja. Its perimeter is encased in a natural stone wall, like a Kong Island movie poster. The villages spoke little English and were elated to see us. With help from Melly, our translator, they asked about our lives in Australia and took many pictures of us in their village. They also asked our opinion of their village. The stoic and humble facade melted from their faces and their pleasure could not be contained when we told them how intrigued we are with their culture and how fortunate we were to spend time among such people.

The villagers took us into a small simple house with a coffin in a bedroom. The man who lay inside had died a decade earlier, but they did not have the money to buy the buffalo needed for slaughter. He was highly respected, warranting a worthy sacrifice.

His coffin was positioned against a far wall within a small bedroom in a two-bedroom house. Six men slept in the living room. Although we were not told it was a hard rule, the practice seems to imply the dead need peace. Out of respect for the dead, the man in the coffin was given a bedroom, while the others slept communally. The actions of Torajan’s so noticeably align with their values.

We were lucky enough to have the coffin lid removed and gaze on the face of the great man who died a decade earlier, and pay our respects.

In the bedroom with the coffin, there were a few boxes and chattel. Up against a wall was an old iron spear. The four of us, being our friend Melly, the uncle of the deceased, known as ‘Uncle’, Steven and I, moved into the living room. Melly, was again our translator,

What is the spear for?” I asked.

There is no spear in there,” the uncle said.

Uncle motioned us to a wall showing a calendar with his son’s face. The boy was running for election and Uncle beamed with uncontainable pride. After studying the calendar and talking about his journey and impending success, we had a cup of tea.

Sorry, why is a spear in the room?” I asked again.

There is no spear in there” said Uncle.

I didn’t want to appear rude, but I had to ask again. I’d seen a spear right next to a walking stick against a coffin with a 12-year-old corpse in it. I couldn’t keep my mind from circling around the image. I’d seen a spear.

In the room there are a few boxes, blankets and a coffin. Also, a walking stick and a spear?” I said.

Uncle shrugged his shoulders. “There is another calendar here, if you’d like to see it.”

After a short awkward silence, Uncle opened the door and immediately saw the object I had been talking about and became fully animated, fuelled off past memories. He picked it up with a smile and walked back to us beaming with pride.

The word for spear implies the object is used to spear animals, so he naturally missed it,” Melly interpreted.

We could see by the way he held it, he was proud of the item. He weighed it with his hands, and then gripped it as if testing its strength. Many moments of silence passed.

Soooo…if a spear is for animals”, I reasoned “then this is for people?”.

Yes, it’s a weapon. Not a spear. He [the man in the coffin] was famous for its use,” Uncle said proudly.

“If you don’t mind,” I said, while Steven held the spear, “If he is known for its use, and it is for people, then it means he speared someone?

The was a moment of confusion.

“..with the Weapon” I quickly corrected myself.

“No, not someone,” said Uncle, taking a sip of his tea. “Not someone,… many, many people.

Steven and I looked at each other. We could not let the conversation return to the calendars.

Why did he kill so many people?” I asked.

When the communists came, they did many bad things, especially to woman. They have no God. They were many. They had guns,” Uncle said.

And you had this man,” I said, “And his spear

Weapon” Corrected Melly.

Weapon” I corrected myself

Yes, he would follow the platoon into the jungle, after their pillage, wait months, and then kill them there in their sleep.” Said uncle matter of factly.

How many?” I asked.

Many. Many. Many. It even made the news, we were told.”

I imagine a team of soldiers butchered in the jungle, tracked by a lone mercenary revenging a villages honour, could be the sort of thing that makes the daily news.

That’s a pretty amazing story,” Steven said.

Yes, he defended the village many times from communist, bandits, robbers. Many times,” said Uncle.

We examined the spear in awe.

Does the weapon have a name?” I asked Uncle, as his eyes fell on the coffin.

No,” he said.

But when you talk with Melly,' I continued,' about the spear, i mean the weapon, in Indonesian, you use the same words each time, do those words describe the weapon?”

“Yes,” said Uncle."It is the just the name others use. It's funny, the villages call it a spear because they saw the enemies as pigs. But really it's a weapon that spears"

How did I make 'spear' so confusing , I wondered.

What are the words the villagers use to describe this weapon?” I asked. Steven now had the spear in both hands, weighing it as Uncle had done earlier.

“I hope it has an awesome name,” Steven whispered.

Uncle looked at the spear. “Here it is called, the ‘spear that destroyed communism’.”


[NOTE: The village is still saving to purchase the buffalos needed for this great man's funeral. In 13 years they have saved for 2 buffalo. They need 57.]

"Thomas Searles: the Cosmopolitan Treasure Hunter".. it's official.

  • Facebook Social Icon

Megalithology Photo Journal

  • Facebook Social Icon