Race to Protect Tambun’s Forgotten Ancient Rock Art

“Tapir, tiger, boar, dugong, deer……and wait, is that a turtle?”

Standing right in front of the overhang limestone shelter of Gua Tambun, we attempted to ‘decode’ some depictions of these mind-boggling ancient rock arts, which is believed to have been on the cave wall of Gua Tambun for at least 3000-4000 years. For many, these paintings are perhaps ordinary doodles from old times; for an archaeologist like me, however, these paintings represent the voices and worldviews of the early men of Tambun.

The UNTOLD story of Tambun

Lying within the limestone massif of Gunung Panjang, Gua Tambun is a natural rockshelter situated on the eastern side of Ipoh, just outside the town limits. It is the largest prehistoric rock art site found thus far in Peninsular Malaysia, and contains more than 600 depictions in red, purple and white shades. This site was discovered in 1959 and the origin of these rock arts can be traced back to Neolithic age, approximately 3000-4000 years ago. The rock art of Tambun Cave can be categorised into five distinct forms, namely zoomorphs (elements that have been interpreted as animal forms); anthropomorphs (human shapes); geometric features; botanic shapes and abstract shapes. Recognising its cultural significance, Gua Tambun was gazetted as a National Heritage Site by the Department of National Heritage Malaysia in 2010.

At present, Tambun rock art which have survived for a few thousand years are being subjected to natural and human threats. Sun and rain degrade the rock art, but what worries me is the increasing modern graffiti along the cave wall. In my opinion, this vulnerable piece of prehistoric rock art needs to be protected and the conservation movement should start from the local level. Why? Because Tambun rock art is ‘indigenously Tambun’ and there is no way the conservation of Gua Tambun can sustain without local support.

It is time for Ipohites to rally around to save this precious archaeological site.

Hsiao-Mei Goh

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