National Geographic : 2005 Aug
a French doctoral student, and Indonesian archaeologists Gunadi Mum and Nasruddin, would carefully sift through layers of earth, searching for artifacts. Two samples of charcoal were later dated back to 12,000 years ago. Such discoveries may eventually indicate that the people who left these prints and drawings were related to the Aboriginals who'd earlier migrat ed to Australia and created similar rock art. Leaving the archaeologists to their excavations, I set out on foot for Ilas Kenceng, some nine miles away, with Ham, Tewet, our film team, and Serge Caillault, my caving partner. By the time we reached the cave, however, Serge had devel oped a bad fever. This worried me, since my friend Guillaume Artur du Plessis, had died from leptospirosis during our trek in 1988. I wanted to evacuate Serge immediately. But when the res cue helicopter arrived, the pilot at first didn't want to put down in our makeshift landing zone. Finally he did, picking up Serge, who was later diagnosed with typhoid fever and treated with antibiotics. He pulled through just fine. Near the end of our expedition, after we'd spent many hours photographing, measuring, and doc umenting the paintings at Ilas Kenceng, I woke up one morning on my groundsheet in the mouth of the cave. The forest below was bathed in a soft morning mist, monkeys were screaming, and birds swirled in circles, feeding on insects. I was exhausted, covered with dust. But I didn't want to leave. We still had so many questions. High above me in an alcove was a magical piece of art, six hand stencils spread like a bouquet (op posite page). Each print was delicate, but together they seemed vibrant with energy as if they'd been created only moments ago. In 2000 a piece of calcite covering a hand in another part of the cave had been tested in a mass spectrometer at France's National Center for Scientific Research. It proved to be at least 10,000 years old, meaning that the hand beneath the calcite had to be even older. Getting up from the floor, I walked back into the cave, where Jufri was boiling water for cof fee. Of all the guides, only he had agreed to sleep in the cave. The rest were frightened of the ghosts said to roam such sacred places. I didn't know about ghosts, but I couldn't deny that I too was now haunted by the spirits of those who'd once painted these walls. EXPLORE THE MYSTERY Zoom into a panoramic view of a 30-foot span of rock art, including the "tree of life, and exam ine it inch by inch at nationalgeographic.com/magazine/0508.