Bali - Nusa Penida Prehistory (Dijkman 2007)

Archaeological findings: Goa Gede Cave slowly unravels its mysteries

The Neolithic period in Indonesia ca. 4,000 years ago, is especially marked by the permanent settlements of food-producing people, quite different from the food-gatherers during the Palaeolithic. During the pre-Hindu period, mainly during the Neolithic and the Megalithic, the Indonesians had reached a sufficiently high stage of culture, which enabled them to experience further development after having contact with Indian and other foreign culture. In other words, the Indonesians also played and active and important role in the process of acculturation.

A team from the Balai Arkeologi at Denpasar, under the guidance of I Made Suastika, commenced excavations in Nusa Penida in 2001. They have been working patiently on various sites and each year the Balai Arkeologi publishes the excavation team's findings in 'Berita Penelitian Arkeologi'. Although a number of interesting findings have surfaced, research on the prehistory of Nusa Penida is scarcely out of the egg.



image above: Grinding axe, tortoise-type, Goa Gede, May 2002

Early human settlements have been found in a number of caves all over the island, amongst which the most important one, Goa Gede, located in the slope of the Cilagi river near the village of Pedem (Pejukutan), in the remote southeastern part of the island. Two caves at the northeast coast of the island, Goa Giri Putri and Goa Paon (village of Karangsari, Suana) have been researched, as well as Goa Medayung (Payung) which was discovered as recently as 2007, situated 700 metres west of Goa Gede. Apart from these, there are the caves Petung, Celeng and Song.

The remains of human habitation date back to the post-Pleistocene era, when in the Early Holocene, just after the last ice-age around 1,000.000 BC, people gradually changed their life from wanderers to cave dwellers and coastal settlers. The excavations at Goa Gede and Medayung, both near the Cilagi river, have brought to light a number of fascinating findings: artefacts (objects created by humans that can be moved), ecofacts (natural objects that can be moved) and 'fitures' (findings within the cave that cannot be moved, like a man-made hole in a large rock). They show two layers of civilisation. The upper most layer shows an era of hunter-gatherers in an advanced stage, which is exemplified by findings of medium-sized milling stones and stone cutting chips. The layer below this represents the advanced stage of hunters, exemplified by findings such as bone tools, knife-like stone chips and massive stone tools.

In and around the riverbed of Cilagi a number of large igneous rocks were found. These rocks are the solidified product of lava or magma and are not original to Nusa Penida for the island does not have any volcanoes and consists mainly of limestone (Karst). According to the excavation team's leader Suastika, a specialist on excavations on the island, this means that during the Pleistocene the people must have brought them from elsewhere, probably mainland Bali. Hence, contacts between Nusa Penida and other islands were well-established even as far back as 10,000 years ago.


Food remains, animal bones, Goa Gede, April 2005

In Goa Gede the largest number of objects was found in 'spit' 17, with an average excavation depth of 1,75m. A spit is a precisely measured plot of soil in the form of a rectangle. Each spit has a depth of 10cm. This depth is pre-described by international standards for archeological excavations the world over, where it concerns prehistory. For the classical period in Bali (both Indianised and Majapahit?) the depth of each spit is a prescribed 25cm.

A total of some 4,200 objects was excavated with a total weight of 138kg. This 'yield' comprises nearly all the objects that have ever been found in Goa Gede. There was a wide range of tools made from bone and shell, there were stone splinters (chips), heavy stone tools such as chopping adzes, hand-axes, milling stones and simple stone drilling devices (batu gurdi). The only tool that was missing at this depth was fossilised wooden tools, of which one was discovered a little higher up in spit 14 at an excavation depth of 1,45m. Not in the category tools were bone and shell fragments (of the first one nearly 3,000) and three types of cockle shells and molluscs, i.e. gastropods and overcolumns and also land shells.

Other animal remains were also found. Pieces of animal jaws and teeth, spines (fish bones?) and the remains of turtle shells. From the excavations, one gets a clear idea of what kind of animals could be found on Nusa Penida during the post-Pleistocene era. First of all there were the invertebrates such as molluscs (gastropods, pelecypoda, cephalopoda, patelidae, cassidae, cypraedae, arcidae, conidae and trochidae), there were anthropods in this category. The remains of fish and birds have been found, but it is unclear to what species these remains belong other than chickens. Of the mammals we have a clearer idea. There were monitor lizards (varanidae), civets (veviridae, musang), flying foxes and bats (microchiroptera), rodents, turtles (chelonidae), snakes (ophidae), macaques, long-tailed crabs and hogs (suidae).

Apart from the various tools that humans produced, other human remains consist of pieces of charcoal and fireplaces where the earth is visibly blackened. In the first layer of unearthed soil the remains of early agriculture have been found, whilst at a deeper layer the remains of the advanced hunter-gatherers have been discovered. Of the upper level, carbon dating of a charcoal sample of a fireplace was conducted in 2007, the upshot being the number 3805 +/- 25 BP, which corresponds to the year 1850 BC. Only one tiny piece of pottery (earthenware, tiles – kereweng) was found in spit 16 at an approximate depth of 1,65m. It concerns a smooth and simple piece of earthenware. An analysis of this piece shows that it derives from a large type of cooking pot or caldron. Also, spear points made of gastropod shells were found in 2008, measuring between around five and three centimetres in length. In the same year, arrowheads made from the same shells were discovered, in the form of a tripod measuring more than three centimetres in length.

image: Macaque, Goa Gede, October 2004; Early Holocene - Neolithicum

Decorations or 'jewellery' have also been found. They come in the form of a pendulums or hangers made of tusks (fangs) of civets and of the shells of molluscs. A whole in the base of the animal tooth was made so that a series of tusks would hang down from a necklace made probably with a kind of thread. The upper edges of the shells were cut or polished so as to get a smooth feel to it. Up to 2007, no human skeletons have been found inside Goa Gede. The only tangible human remains in this sense is a tooth from the upper jaw.

Perhaps the most curious finding is a perfectly round, small, orange-brown 'ball' found in spit 23 at 2,35m depth. The function of this ball is not clear. Was it used as a playing tool or was it perhaps used in religious ceremonies? A clue is to be found in another cave named Goa Paon. This cave in the direct vicinity of Goa Giri Putri, or by present Hindus referred to as Goa Karangsari (Suana), was researched for the first time in 2008. The cave is situated on the steep shores of the Aya River, very close to Goa Giri Putri, so that it is rather hard labour to reach Goa Paon. At the entrance of this cave, near the riverbed, large stone tools have been found of the gigentolithic type. Like the igneous stones around Cilagi River, these stone tools are not originally from Nusa Penida so they must have been brought here by the people of that era from outside the island. It is worth noting here that the Aya River currently only contains water during the wet monsoon, and dries out in the dry period which each year lasts from April to October. Judging by the waterbed/trench of the river, however, it is thought that this river once used to be a permanently flowing river. This, then, is an indication that the island was once a fertile and green island before the massive onslaught on Nusa Penida's vegetation in the second half of the Nineteenth century.

Karst caves elsewere in the archipelago

There are similarities and differences with caves in other Karst areas like Pecatu (Bukit), Lombok, Blambangan in Java. As is the case with Goa Selonding in Pecatu, another cave of the tertiary Karst region formed around 70,000 years ago, various tools have been excavated made of stone, shells and bones. Also food remains have been found, such as animal bones and plant remains (in what form if not fossilised?).

Similarities and differences with caves in the rest of Indonesia: in western Indonesia no wall paintings have been found, whereas in the Eastern half of the country this is common in places like Sulawesi, The Eastern lesser Sundas, Kalimantan, West Papua and he Moluccas. What seems to be unique for the western half of the archipelago is the production of bone tools called 'Sampung'. This name was given to the specific type of bone tool found at Goa Lawah (Komplek Sampung) on mainland Bali, as described by Dutch archaeologist Stein Callenfels in 1932. In Java, human skeletons have been retrieved to support the theory of life during the Mesolithicum, but in Bali up to the moment of writing no human body remains like bones, skeletons or skulls of this period have ever been found.

Bali in the XIth Century

During the time of king Marakatapangkaja (1022-1023), Anak Wungsu (1049-1077), Jayasakti (1133-1150), Ragajaya (1155), and Jayapangus (1177-1181) the inhabitants of Bali were divided into various groups: farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, traders, musician, hunters and shepherds. Some terms related to farming used in Balinese inscriptions of mentioned period are sawah (rice field), huma (wet rice field), parlak (dry rice field), gaga (dry rice fields on hillsides; ladang. The fishermen lived up around the lakes ('wwang ing wingkang ranu' – man in bank lake, people who live on the shore of the lake), but also those along the north coast. But it must be understood that double-pointed tools which look like needles from the Mesolithic era (ca. 8000 years ago) have also been excavated in the Selonding cave in South Bali. These artefacts are made of fish-spines and were quite probably used by fishermen in making casting-nets. Similar points (the so-called muduk-points) are still used by aborigines in Australia. The double-pointed tools from the Selonding cave are now preserved at the Archaeology Museum at Bedulu, Bali.

Rice cultivation or agricultural activities remain unchanged since the beginning of the eleventh century. This proves that Balinese farmers had reached a sufficiently high stage of rice cultivation at least by the time king Marakatapangkaja (1024-1028). It is also conceivable and very likely that the subak association was known prior to the time of Marakatapangkaja (makaser) and Anak Wungsu (kasuwakan).

Nusa Gurun in the XIth Century

As far as the traders are concerned, Atmodjo refers to their boats, which are referred to as: jong (sailing vessel), bahitra (bahtera Indo, proa), lancang (small proas) and sambo (cfr. samwau in the inscription of Kedukan Bukit, 683 AD). The traders came from overseas and it is worth mentioning that that King Anak Wungsu (1049-1077) had purchased 30 buffaloes from Gurun, which is mentioned in the Charter of Lutungan (1053 AD). 'lawan ikang kbo prana 30 ulih paduka haji anumbas-i gurun' ('and 30 buffaloes which are purchased by the king from Gurun'). Gurun corresponds to either the island of Nusa Penida or the southern part of Lombok (the village of Gerung in South-Lombok). Based on the inscriptions of Julah it is obvious that eleventh-century ships could transport at least 30 buffaloes. It is a pity that in this early reference of 1053 AD to the King of Gurun, his name is not mentioned. As we have seen, the victory of Sri Kesari Warmadewa over the kingdom of Gurun was commemorated in the Blanjong Pillar (913 AD) without mentioning the name of the royal family of Gurun either. According to J.C. van der Eerde (1911), Gurun is identified as Nusa Penida.


  • Atmodjo, M.M. Sukarto K. - Bab VII. Balidwipamandala (unpublished? – written between 1963-1978 in Bedulu, Bali), p.10, 18-19
  • Atmodjo, M.M. Sukarto K. - Short notes on agricultural data from ancient Balinese inscriptions: [paper presented at] the fourth Indonesian-Dutch history conference, 24th-29th July 1983, Yogyakarta, s.n./1983, 46pp
  • Suastika, I Made - Penelitian Pola Hunian Gua di Nusa Penida; in: Redig, Dr.I Wayan (ed.), Berita Penelitian Arkeologi, ISSN 1410-6477, Departemen Kebudayaan dan Pariwisata, Bali Arkeologi Denpasar, 2008, p.93-134
  • Suastika, I Made - Hasil Penelitian Situs Gua Gede dan Gua Medayung, desa Pejukutan, Kecamatan Nusa Penida, Kabupaten Klungkung, Bali; in: Wardi, Drs. I Nyoman (ed.) - Berita Penelitian Arkeologi, ISSN: 1410-6477, Departemen Kebudayaan dan Pariwisata, Bali Arkeologi Denpasar, 2007, p.64-90
  • Suastika, I Made - Perkakas Batu dalam Hunian Gua Gede, Nusa Penida; in: Forum Arkeologi, Balai Arkeologi Denpasar, ISSN 0854-3233, No.II, June 2003, p.1-14
  • Widia, Dr.Wayan - Laporan Survey Benda-benda Kuno Nusa Penida dan Gunung Hyang Kabupaten Klungkung, Museum Bali, Direktorat Museum, Dirjen Kebudayaan, Departemen P&K, 1978, 14p.

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