UNSpecial N° 630 — Juin – June 2004

Questions... Enigmas... Mysteries... (3) — The Stone Statues of Bada Valley

Secrets of the megaliths of Sulawesi

Evelina Rioukhina, UNECE
“Even if you travel a thousand miles, it may only be a step"

There are researchers and philosophers who analyse the special significance of stones; their work is fascinating. Stones are said to represent eternity that lives beyond the notion of time. Throughout the centuries or millenniums stones have been silent witnesses of the past, keeping secrets from the present and purveying them to the future..

Fire, water and tree steel themselves: 
dying, they seek a mineral body 
and find the road to glory: 
steady, the stone shines 
like a hard new rose.

(Pablo Neruda, poem “XVII”)

Megaliths are huge stones, often monuments made of large stones, built by ancient peoples (or civilizations) which, depending on their form, may have had a special meaning or a special function. There are several theories on that subject, some of which relate to the mystery of the standing stones of Stonehenge in England, others to the megaliths in the form of statues, of which the best known and the most mysterious are those in the Easter Island of the Pacific. Megaliths can be found all over, in Europe, Russia, the Americas, Africa and Asia. They are of different form, and very probably most originate from ancient worship or burial ceremonies.

Whereas the significance of some of the megaliths could be easily guessed at or explained, there are several sites on our planet that intrigue scientists, researchers and travellers. The standing stones of Stonehenge and stone statues of Easter Island are at the top of the list of world mysteries. These megaliths have been visited by thousands or even millions of people, and most people know about them even if the mystery remains. Others, although no less interesting or important are much less known by the broad public.

Do you know, for example, that megaliths just as valuable and historically significant as those of Easter Island have been found on one of the islands in Indonesia, namely in the central part of the Sulawesi islands, surrounded by mountain ranges, difficult of access.

The nature and origin of the stone statues of Sulawesi are still steeped in mystery. No one knows who made them, when or for what purpose. The stone statues have features like human beings and animals (owl, monkey or buffalo). The biggest statue, in Padang Sape, measures four meters high, 1.5 meters wide and 1.29 meters thick, and it stands leaning, facing the southwest. In Bomba, six kilometers from Gintu, is a statue of Langkebulawa with eyes shaped like those of an owl. The statues of human form have oversized heads and are legless. Resembling abstract art, the carving is highly stylised – carved lines are all that define the facial features. Some are with very big eyes, some are with smaller eyes, some scientists attribute those with small eyes to male statues, and with big eyes – to female statues. Some megaliths have arms curving towards the abdomen, others have oversized genitalia. Some were found in the middle of the valleys, some in the streams, open fields or paddy fields.

The origin of the Sulawesi megaliths remains a mystery. There are various explanations. Some locals believe they were used in ancestral worship, or may have had something to do with human sacrifice. Some of the sources indicate that these statues show remarkable similarity to the stone statues of the Easter Island or with the stone figures found on Cheju island in Korea. Some believe that these statues ward off evil spirits. There is even a superstition that the statues could disappear or move away (true or not, but several statues were reported to be found in slightly different locations), and that they cannot be photographed (that is why the original photos used in this article are exceptionally precious). One legend says they were criminals turned into stone. Interestingly, all the megaliths are made from a type of stone not found in the area.

Of course, all this adds to the mystery. I tried to obtain as much information as possible. It turned out that the valley where these megaliths are situated lies in an extremely inaccessible area, requiring real passion for travel and discoveries, readiness to live in very difficult conditions, trekking for many kilometres and even days in jungles and mountains, not to mention personal courage and strong willpower. I understood that there were hardly a dozen Europeans who have undertaken such a journey, and trying to find who they were I was very fortunate to meet with one of them, a very interesting person, Mark Maxon. Mark is a professional journalist who until recently worked for the BBC and who is currently on sabbatical leave to travel and write.

I was much impressed by all I have learnt from his travels. I asked him to share with our readers his experiences as regards his expedition to Sulawesi and the mysterious megaliths. Mark was very generous to offer the rare and precious photos of these megaliths. This is his story about the megaliths of Bada Valley:

“Nobody really knows how old the Bada megaliths are, or who made them, or even why they’re there. They probably date from the first millennium AD, but this figure is fairly debatable, depending on which scientist you consult. The locals don’t have a clue – ‘they’ve always been here’ is the most common response if you ask someone where the statues came from – and all this adds to a wonderful sense of mystery. Even more interestingly, all the objects in the area are made from a type of grey stone of which there are no deposits in the near vicinity, so work that one out; these megaliths are huge, heavy, and in the middle of nowhere, a long way from where they should be.

There are 14 statues in total, plus many large stone vats scattered along the 15km valley. In 1984 the government persuaded the locals to build some wooden houses next to some of the megaliths, which appear to serve no purpose, and some concrete walkways around some of the more famous statues. You would assume that this makes the megaliths easy to find – it’s almost set up as a tourist destination, after all, just without the tourists – but it’s never that easy.

Talk about finding a needle in a haystack. The Bada Valley is a farming area, smothered in paddy fields and little streams, and there’s just no way you’re going to find megaliths in something like that, especially with a map that looked great when I copied it down, but which proved to be pretty useless in the field. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and we just kept asking the local farmers where the megaliths were until, eventually, we realised that they were sending us in totally the wrong direction. That’s when we saw the house, complete with little kid and grandmother, who turned themselves into our guides for the morning.

Following the odd couple through the fields, we began to realise that finding megaliths was fine if you knew where to look, but not so good if you didn’t. Luckily our guides managed the job fairly successfully, guiding us to all sorts of statues and large stone pots, and only getting lost a couple of times, and before you knew it we’d seen standing megaliths, sleeping megaliths, large pots, small pots and all sorts of odd stone shapes, all of which we would never have found alone. Returning to their house we knocked their initial demands for huge sums down to 3000rp, and then persuaded the old man of the house to take us to another megalith on our way out of the valley, all for another 2000rp and half a packet of cigarettes; this one turned out to be hidden inside a paddy field, along a network of paths that nobody could navigate without help. It all felt rather satisfying to have found the megaliths, but without resorting to the tourist trap of hiring an expensive guide for the day. The megaliths we saw were among the best of the bunch, and trekking round the whole valley to find them all is a long and difficult process, only suited to those who live, breathe and eat megalith mythology. The ones we got to see were the following, detailed along with the only information I managed to glean.

Thank you very much, dear Mark, for sharing this wonderful experience with us and offering us such precious photos of these mystic megaliths.

The description and photographs are especially precious because they are from an original source. It will definitely evoke the interest of all those who are curious to learn about little known mysteries in different places of the world, and will especially stimulate those who are passionate travellers.

Series by Evelina Rioukhina, UNECE