Gua Badak: Cave art from the past

Gua Badak: Cave art from the past
Significant scribblings: This was how the Gua Badak drawings on the cave face looked like in 1992. Now they have faded.

MALAYSIA - Imagine a family of cave men sitting in their cave shelter at the end of the day. The hunters have been successful and managed to catch some prey for the evening meal. The gatherers have gathered enough vegetables to supplement the meat. Everyone is contented.

The sun has not yet set over the plains. One or two people decide to while away their time by drawing. Paper hasn't been invented yet. Pens and ink are unheard of. So what do the budding artists do? Pick up small pieces of red stone and draw on the cave walls.

Back then, people led a simple life so the objects they drew were limited to what they could see in everyday life. This, of course, was predominately food. And so the people drew animals they hunted and could eat.

Today, thousands of years later, these drawings still exist. What might have been the cave man's doodles have become important archaeological art.

The cliff face at Gua Tambun in Perak is a great example. The pre-historic drawings are located high up the face of a cliff that rises 50m above ground level. You have to climb a steep staircase to reach the cliff; be careful, as parts of these steps are covered by undergrowth.

At the top of the steps, you will come to the wide ledge in front of the cliff. The ancient paintings are mostly situated about 7m above this present-day floor level, and most depict animals. The main picture, featured in many articles and tourist brochures, is thought to depict a dugong.

It's always interesting to view the paintings with other people as everyone has different ideas on what they represent. It can turn out to be quite a guessing game.

I imagine them to be a pig, a deer, and a round one looks like a turtle. Another seems to be a giant catfish - so were there large catfish in the rivers in those ancient days? There is even what appears to be a man with enlarged genitals!

Other motifs show abstract shapes, even a row of exclamation marks. It's nice just to sit and gaze at the drawings and let your imagination come up with all sorts of ideas. Even archaeological researchers, who have recorded more than 500 individual drawings, are not really sure what some of the pictures represent.

Thought to be about 2,000 years old, the artwork was drawn probably with haematite. This red-coloured iron-based rock can be found around Gua Tambun, so the "artists" didn't have too far to go for their materials.

Presumably, back then, the floor level was much higher, enabling the artists to draw on the rock wall. At the same time, they would have had a wonderful view of the plains which are now Ipoh and its surroundings.

Fast-forward to the present day. Graffiti is generally frowned upon, especially when drawn on buildings and walls without permission. Some exceptions are when the art is particularly good and admired, such as the recent paintings on walls in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang.

These city paintings are becoming a trend and, in the last few months, more and more have appeared. Some are now considered tourist attractions, and have even been sponsored by paint companies. So I wonder if, when the ancient cave people started to draw, did those around them scold them and tell them to stop. Or was it considered an art form even then?

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