A solitary antelope, an enigmatic silhouette, a family holding hands: hidden in a cave in the middle of the Thai jungle, rock paintings have just been unearthed by a team of intrepid archaeologists, a rare find dating back to more than two thousand years.
Kanniga Premjai climbs a hill in Sam Roi Yot National Park four hours southwest of Bangkok, struggling through the thorny forest. Arrived at the top, she enters a cavity and points with her torch the horns of an antelope engraved in the stone.
“We initially thought it was rust accumulated on the walls,” the 40-year-old archaeologist told AFP. But, quickly, thanks to a mobile application intended for archaeological surveys, she distinguished drawings. “I shouted very loud”. Its discovery on May 14 crowned months of totally fruitless research with 40 caves unsuccessfully explored.
Former royal capitals, Khmer cities, temples: Thailand has unearthed many remains that attracted millions of visitors each year before the coronavirus pandemic.
Finding cave paintings is much more complicated: the sites are difficult to access and the Department of Fine Arts of Thailand, in charge of archaeological prospecting, is sorely lacking in staff: in the Ratchaburi branch (south) which covers six Provinces of Thailand, only a team of three archaeologists, including Kanniga Premjai, is dedicated to this type of excavation.
In Thailand, most of the work “consists in preserving what has already been found,” explains Noël Hidalgo Tan, of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Archeology and Fine Arts. “There are a lot of still unexplored sites”.
“We never know what we’re going to come across,” Kanniga Premjai points out, sneaking into the other chambers of the cave. You have to search every corner, every cliff, every cavity.
In 2016, the authorities updated the first paintings in this area of Sam Roi Yot Park, prompting the scientist to push further research. Its discovery confirms its first hypotheses, of an ancient human presence in the region.
Hunter-gatherers lived here around 3,000 years ago, explains Noël Hidalgo Tan. With the seasons, “they moved from one camp to another and (this cavity), in the mountain, could have been one of their bases”.
The expert is worried about the preservation of the site.
“To preserve and protect the caves, you have to find money, unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as profitable” as an ancient temple or an ancient palace.
They cannot easily be opened to tourists either, given their difficult access.
But Kanniga Premjai is not discouraged. “Finding paintings is like digging up a treasure (…) The charm of archeology is never to be bored”.
Sam Roi Yot’s paintings are not the oldest discovered in Thailand: others have been unearthed in the north of the country at sites occupied 5 to 11,000 years ago.