Luc-Henri FageAncient art of communication

Published in 2000icon-clockTime to read: 0min 55s

French explorer Luc-Henri Fage discovered prehistoric cave paintings in Kalimantan nearly 30 years ago and campaigned to save these artistic treasures.


Deep in the jungles of Indonesian Borneo are caves that are home to thousands of astonishing rock paintings, some more than 14,000 years old, and most showing stencilled hands. When explorer, speleologist and documentary film-maker Luc-Henri Fage first discovered charcoal pictures in 1988, he understood their importance and set out to draw the world’s attention to these vestiges of prehistoric man, and the need to preserve them.

Before we went there, Kalimantan, a region as big as France, hadn’t been visited by a single archaeologist.

Accompanied by archaeologists Jean-Michel Chazine (France) and Pindi Setiawan (Indonesia), he has undertaken numerous, frequently hazardous expeditions to the region, discovering new caves and paintings in the karst outcrops. The “negative” hands are the result of a very fine powdered pigment being blown over the hand by mouth or through a hollow tube dominate the artwork adorning Kalimantan’s caves. Many of them are over-painted with symbolic drawings which are unique in the world; Fage and his colleagues believe they could be a communication code.

This art that has survived for so long faces many threats, and in 2011 Fage co-wrote a book, Borneo, Memory of the Caves, to support his objective of creating a natural park in the Marang Mountains, where the most remarkable drawings are located. He then made two films of his discoveries. He hopes to convince Indonesia’s authorities to limit the impact of coalmines and cement works, which take limestone from the karst, and to introduce ecotourism and sustainable development as viable alternatives.

  • 30

    Recurring hand designs with their symbolic dots and straight and zigzag lines catalogued by Fage

  • 1,938

    Stencilled hands and other drawings found in about 40 caves in Borneo by 2011

  • 10,000 - 25,000

    Age range of Indonesian Borneo’s cave art

View all projects


Rolex Awards for Enterprise

Discover more