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THE LAST ANCESTOR
John Francis Kinsella
Copyright © 2018 John Francis Kinsella
all rights reserved
Published by John Francis Kinsella
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LONDON - PARIS - BERLIN
We should always be aware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future.
In Pohjola there are thick, dark forests that dream wild dreams, forever secret. Tapio’s eerie dwellings are there and half-glimpsed spirits, and the voices of twilight.
There were better ways of spending a Saturday morning than being dragged off for a talk about old bones. Kate had insisted that Scott accompany her to some lost Parisian suburb to listen to Michel Brunet, a renowned palaeoanthropologist, talk about his discovery of an important fossil in Chad, that of one of man’s early ancestors.
It was wet and windy and spending the morning in bed with Kate would have certainly been more pleasant. Fitznorman, however, rationalised, at the worse that could be put back to Sunday, if he agreed to her expedition, or not at all if he baulked at her project.
There was not too much traffic and they arrived early at the brand new and expensive looking mediatheque where the talk was to be held. It was just as well if they were to have a good seat since the receptionist did not even mention the reservations Kate had taken the precaution of making.
The doors opened at ten and they made their way into the small conference hall. At the entrance, to their relief, they were told that those who had made reservations would find their seats marked by ‘Postits’ in the front rows. Michel Brunet sat alone on the low stage, behind him projected on a screen was the photo of a fairly battered looking skull.
Brunet, after a brief introduction by a representative of the local municipal council, commenced his talk. He was a man of about sixty with an unassuming appearance, wearing a close cut greying beard, bespectacled, and sporting a worn blazer, he was not unlike an older version of an off duty explorer.
It soon became evident that he was a passionate exponent of human evolution with a finely developed sense of humour and a fascinating talker. He started by recalling to his audience that the teaching of evolution was still forbidden by law in the State of Alabama, then going on to explain that during the greatest part of human civilisation, man had no past history, man was the result of divine creation, he was its raison d’être, and at the centre of the universe.
Brunet’s twenty year search for the common ancestor of man and the great apes had finally borne its fruit in the harsh Djurab Desert, five hundred kilometres north of of N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, in the form of a seven million year old fossil he had named ‘Tuomai’.
The climax of the talk was the presentation of Tuomai’s skull, when the suburban audience of mostly not too young people pressed around the table to touch what was in fact a resin copy.
As they returned to Paris, Kate enthused about Brunet’s account of adventure and exploration in the vast expanses of the African desert, which he had provokingly described to his gawking audience, trapped in their inescapable humdrum suburban existence.
She was so excited by the talk that Fitznorman, in a weak moment and charmed by her girlish fervour, suggested she join him on his next trip to South East Asia in search of ancient ceramics and tribal art for his Parisian gallery.
Kate, whose knowledge of South East Asia, from a historical viewpoint and as a specialist in Asian art, was considerable, had never visited Borneo and jumped at his invitation, accepting it before he had time to change his mind. Back in his apartment they spent the rest of the afternoon poring over the maps and guides that Fitznorman dug out from his chaotically organised library.
Looking at the map of Borneo, she saw that to the north, facing the South China Sea, were the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak with the tiny Sultanate of Brunei squeezed in between the two. To the south were the Indonesian provinces of Kalimantan that covered precisely 87% of the vast island.
From one of the guides, she read that the coastal areas were shallow, surrounded by impenetrable mangroves and without natural harbours, as a result the towns and villages were built well up-stream on the banks of the many vast rivers. The highland areas were far inland and difficult to reach, girdled by dense primary forests, deep rivers and swamps. The first European to cross the island was the Dutch explorer Schwaner, in the mid-nineteenth century.
At the end of the twentieth century all that was changing, fast, hundreds of thousands of hectares of rainforest were burning. A cloud of smoke invaded the region, almost asphyxiating the populations of Sumatra and Borneo. It was part of a recurring cycle of fires that regularly consumed the forests on the east coast of Sumatra and the south coast of Borneo, all of which grew on a layer of turf up to fifteen metres thick.
With the cyclical variations caused by El Niño, less rain fell and the turf dried out, that is relatively speaking, but enough to burn, sparked by the ancestral methods of shifting cultivation practised by the island’s villagers. Each year, towards the end of autumn, they burnt down parcels of forest to make new fields for rice paddies and in the years when the weather became too dry the fires got out of control taking hold of vast swaths of the surrounding forest.
The explosive growth of Indonesia’s population brought the need for new agricultural land and an ever growing pressure on the primary forests that were disappearing at the rate of two percent per year. In an arc from Pontianak to Bandjermasin fires raged covering the vast island, the world’s third largest, with dense clouds of smoke, which was then carried by the prevailing winds to Jakarta, on the island of Java to the south and Singapore to the north.
In the most part of Borneo, the soil was poor in nutrients which were normally stored in the trees and plants of the forest and recycled by the natural debris, that is dead leaves and plants, which formed the thin humus covering the forest floor. Borneo lacked the rich soil compared to its neighbours, Java and Sumatra, where as a consequence of permanent volcanic activity the soil was constantly regenerated.
Apart from certain coastal regions the ground beneath the humus was a laterite, formed by iron and aluminium hydroxide, up to ten metres deep and once the thin top soil was removed little or no vegetation could thrive, with the exception of tough wild grasses such as alang-alang.
The annual rainfall was as much as three metres and in some coastal cities it rained up to one hundred and eighty days a year, whilst in the mountainous regions it was considerably more with an almost unvarying average ambient temperature of about 28°C. In mid-afternoon hovering around 32°C, falling by between five to ten degrees before daybreak.
The canopy was so dense that little light penetrated to the forest floor. The huge dominant trees literally stood on feet, huge buttresses splayed out over the forest floor, whilst the canopy was supported on the tree’s giant pillar like trunks and their huge branches, intermeshing with an endless variety of creepers to form a vast living tissue woven by the exuberance of nature.
Kate, like many who had studied history, could not help wondering about man’s colonisation of Borneo and how he had lived in the dense and hostile forests that Fitznorman described to her.
Ancient man was probably not unlike the present day Punans, a tribe of hunter-gatherers. The forest teemed with game, but hunting by its human inhabitants was always an unpredictable venture, even nature’s most experienced predators depend on luck, with kill rates often being as little as one in six for every animal tracked.
Hunting had always been a time-consuming occupation and whilst hunters could starve, mostly herbivorous animals, such as the orangutan, could always find an abundance of fruits and plants, though at the cost of spending most of their lives foraging and eating.
The early men who inhabited the forests were omnivores, eating meat when the hunt was good, though most of the time were satisfied by a diet of fruit and vegetables, supplemented by small animals and insects. Unlike their contemporaries living on the African savannah, the possibilities for scavenging were rare in Borneo. In the hot humid jungle dead animal were difficult to find, they either decomposed rapidly or were eaten by insects, birds and small animals that lived in great profusion amongst the dense vegetation.
Scavenging would have been easier in Africa, in spite of competition from other large animals, where even today in the game reserves of the broad open African savannah, millions of large herbivores live, where zebras, gnu and antelopes graze. The life of these herbivores being about ten years meant that each year one to two hundred thousand animals were born and died, three thousand a day, providing a feast for efficient scavengers.
In comparison the jungles of Borneo were dark and lonely with relatively few larger animals on the ground compared to a profusion of animal life in the canopy high above. Early man no doubt hunted wild pig, deer and smaller animals, as the Punans, tribespeople, do today. The buffalo and rhinoceros that also lived in the forest were certainly too dangerous to hunt.
Fitznorman explained to Kate that little systematic scientific exploration had been carried in Borneo until after World War II, and even then it had been very slow. Before then most of Borneo had existed in its undisturbed prehistoric state for millions of years and only in very recent historical times had a small number of towns and villages been established on its coast and river banks.
During the last ice ages between 18,000 and 40,000 years ago the temperature in Borneo fell by five to seven degrees with a much dryer climate, rainfall was much less than it is at present, as water froze into the huge ice caps that covered the northern hemisphere and sea levels fell by more than one hundred metres opening a land bridge that joined Borneo to the Asian land mass.
The climatic change brought modifications to the forests that covered a vast region that geologists know as Sundaland, where the forests were certainly less dense than they are today in many places. Early men arrived, forced southwards by climatic pressure and slowly extended their habitat into Sundaland and what is today Borneo.
The first Homo sapiens arrived across the landbridge from Asia around 40,000 ago with new tools and weapons, followed thousands of years later by further waves of migrants who brought rudimentary agriculture with them and then boats and all the implements of Neolithic man.
A TRIP TO THE DAYAKS
It was a cold, rainy, Thursday afternoon at the end of October when the couple left Paris, taking a taxi from Fitznorman’s apartment situated nearby the Bastille to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
At the Air France business class check-in desk there were relatively few people and they were informed by the smiling hostess, pleased to be giving some good news for once, that the flight was not full and they would have plenty of space during the long hours ahead.
The final destination of AF126 was Jakarta with a stop in Singapore where they were to disembark. The news was not good from the Indonesian capital and Fitznorman was pleased that he would be giving it a miss. The political crisis and its repercussions had discouraged a lot of visitors, especially business people.
Fitznorman had not heard from his friend Aris for weeks. Indonesia was going through a bad time and it would certainly become worse.
He and Kate settled into their seats and accepted with pleasure the Champagne offered them. The girl at the check-in had exaggerated when she had told them that the flight was not full – it was almost empty, they almost had the whole business class cabin to themselves.
He congratulated himself on inviting Kate along, being with her over the next three weeks would be great. Their relationship had become serious, perhaps a little bit too serious, though it had not gone as far as her moving in with him, rather she drifted between her place and his, which suited them both. Whatever the situation at that precise moment he basked in the pleasure that radiated from her. She was a lively, slim, blonde, with a very girlish figure, the kind that he was often attracted to. They sipped their Champagne and the steward topped up their glasses as they waited for the departure.
The motors started and Kate took at last look at Charles de Gaulle Airport through the window of the Airbus. Fitznorman knew the airport only too well, it was an evergrowing, faceless and transient crossroad, where people barely paused to wonder why it existed, its army of workers, technicians and officials, all dedicated to servicing movement. He turned his attention to one of the newspapers that a stewardess had distributed, the International Herald Tribune. He scanned the pages before an article caught his eye:
Jakarta: A suspected car bomb exploded near the parliament building in Jakarta yesterday. A second blast occurred outside the Hilton Hotel, adding to the tensions, as University student demonstrations have become daily events since mid-October demanding the president’s resignation. The students claimed that his government was corrupt and blame his family and their cronies for the nation’s financial crisis.
Over the last months Indonesia’s rupiah currency has plunged more than seventy percent against the dollar as the crisis deepens and unrest spreads across the country.
In Singapore, they were booked into the Sheraton Towers on Scotts Road in the city centre. After the long and uneventful flight they were eager to take advantage of what was left of the day, the drive in from the airport along the startling tropical green avenues with the bright sunshine had whetted their appetites.
They quickly showered and prepared themselves for the evening, there was a seven hour time difference with Paris, and the sun was fading quickly as it did near the equator, a sure sign that it would soon be time to eat and drink. They opted for the MRT, it was cool and rapid, getting off at Boat Quay and making their way to the riverside restaurants. Not surprisingly it was throbbing with the noise of the usual Friday evening excitement, strangely seeming almost exactly as Fitznorman had left it on his last visit, an endless party for some.
Even after many years, each visit to South East Asia was a new adventure for Fitznorman and the possibility of sharing it only enhanced his pleasure. He had first met Kate Lundy, almost fifteen years his junior, a couple of years previously at the inauguration of an exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris, one of the world’s leading museums of Asian art, where she was specialised in the research and history of Asian art and especially ceramics.
Kate had been responsible for compiling one of the most complete catalogues on the subject with countless references and photographic records, a good number of which she had taken herself.
He remembered how they had got off on the wrong foot when they had found themselves arguing about the origin of a Martaban, a very large type of ovoid stoneware jar that were made in China, which transited by the Burmese port of Martaban on the Irrawaddy River from the 14th century onwards. The jars had a long history in Malaysia and Indonesia, traditionally considered as precious heirlooms by the tribal peoples, who even gave the individual jars names, attributing them with magical powers.
Things had however improved little by little as Scott and Kate got to know each other better, discovering they shared more than just a professional interest in Asian art and antiquities.
The bars were full of bankers and traders, it reminded Fitznorman of Nick Leeson, and he could not help thinking how the hapless banker spent several years at the invitation of the Singaporean government in Changi Jail, a few kilometres to the east of the city centre, after he broke the Queen of England’s bank, the Barings, the United Kingdom’s oldest merchant bank, with his huge trading losses on the Singapore stock exchange.
Singapore was not a place to play with the law.
In appearance the crowd had not changed though the bankers had abandoned speculative trading and unrealistic investment projects, turning their attention to oil, gas, or China, where growth continued in a spectacular fashion.
The noisy crowd was dense and overflowed out onto the pavement, although glancing through the gaps Fitznorman saw the bars were not that full inside. The evening crowd consisted mostly of Brits and Australians, who holding their pints of local Tiger or foreign beer, mimicked their respective tribal roles as though they were on the pavements outside of fashionable pubs in the City of London, the Kings Road in Chelsea, or off Flinders in Melbourne. Many of the men still wore their jackets and ties, with the power girls in their dark pin stripped costumes. Mixed with them were fashionably dressed European girlfriends and a scattering of attractive Chinese girls hanging onto the arms of their status symbols.
They strolled towards the bridge at the end of the Quay, pausing to check out the menus, looking at the diners and more exactly what they had on their plates, deciding whether they would eat, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Japanese or Thai.
Fitznorman stopped, taking a double look at a table on the riverside terrace of a Chinese restaurant. It was Erkki Erkkila. They looked at each other a couple of brief instants before their faces lit up with startled recognition, then holding out hands and smiling with the surprise and pleasure of their unexpected reunion, they greeted each other enthusiastically.
Erkki was an international lawyer representing several major Scandinavian multi-nationals with large investments in South East Asia. He was an old friend of Fitznorman and was also an avid collector of Khmer art. The empire of the Khmers had been one of the greatest civilisations of Asia covering all of Indo-China, which was a contemporary of Borobudur, built by the Sailendra princes in East Java during the ninth century.
A quick glance at the couple at Erkki’s table told Fitznorman they were also Finns, and in addition of no particular interest. After an exchange of friendly banalities Fitznorman left his room and Erkki promised to call him to fix a moment to meet when he was free from his business obligations.
They then returned their attention to food and Kate opted for an Indonesian restaurant where they ordered an old favourite, Satay and Nasi Goreng, it was a good choice. Then after talking of the coincidence and the smallness of the world they quickly forgot Erkki and relaxed in the humid warmth of the tropical evening, more than a pleasant change after the cold Parisian autumn weather, enjoying the spicy food and frothy chilled draught beer.
The next morning they took a late breakfast on Orchard Road like a couple of typical tourists before heading to a small reliable travel agent in Peoples Centre, which Fitznorman had used over the years, where he checked out flights and timetables for Kuching in Sarawak. On their return to the hotel there was a voice mail message from Erkki inviting them for dinner. ‘As long as we don’t spend the evening endlessly talking about business,’ said Kate only half joking, meaning Erkki’s business and the political crisis in Indonesia.
Fitznorman returned the call and they agreed to a restaurant that Erkki suggested in China Town. Amusing thought Fitznorman, if Singapore wasn’t Chinese then what was it? The difference however, was that China Town was one of the last remaining districts of the city where the traditional style architecture of the Chinese ‘shop houses’ still survived. The district had been saved from the demolisher’s ball and renovated as both a tourist zone and a souvenir of how the city had once been, before the metamorphose that had transformed Singapore into another faceless city full of sky scrapers, crowded highways and commercial centres, resembling Hongkong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and to a lesser degree Jakarta.
That afternoon they toured the more serious antique dealers, where Fitznorman chatted with their shrewd owners, trying to worm out the latest collectors’ trends and potential new sources of antiques. Business was not good, there were few local buyers, many had lost their shirts on the Asian stock markets. The dealers were tight-lipped, their sources were often illegal, smuggling antiques out of China, pottery and porcelain looted from undeclared shipwrecks in Indonesian and Philippino waters, or from ancient burial sites.
They took a taxi to the restaurant that was situated in a quiet street in the older Chinese Town district of the city a couple of streets away from the dense throng of the evening street market. Erkki was waiting for them, by his side stood an attractive Chinese girl in her early thirties. He warmly shook hands with Fitznorman and gallantly kissed Kate’s hand.
‘Let me introduce you to Chen Li.’
The girl was tall, she was not Singaporean.
‘Chen Li is from Beijing, where she’s an expert in Ming porcelain.’
They were shown to their table.
‘This is a Sichuanese restaurant,’ explained Erkki, ‘the food is excellent.’
The restaurant catered to the upper class amateur of good Chinese food, in a discrete Western ambiance, it was tastefully furnished with the simple stylish lines of Qing period rosewood furniture. The tables were set with authentic Kitchen Ming stoneware bowls and plates in perfect condition, more than four hundred years after they had left the kilns in the coastal cities of South China, the chop sticks were in ivory. Both of the girls politely appraised the grey blue bowls and plates as the two men exchanged news.
‘So Scott what is it that really brings you back to Singapore? I’m sure that it’s more than a simple vacation?’ he said with a wry smile.
‘Well it’s my usual tour, half business and half pleasure, always on the look out for bargains, this time I’ve decided to check out the Ibans and Dayaks, there’s a few outlying longhouses I spotted on my last visit that could be interesting.’
Erkki laughed, ‘On the footsteps of Levi-Strauss I see.’
‘Well not exactly,’ Fitznorman replied looking down at his antique plate. ‘What I’m interested in really are the heirlooms of the Ibans.’
‘Ah, I see, beads for treasure!’ Erkki laughed.
‘Well if I can find a few good Martabans why not!’
‘So then, you’re off to Sarawak and Kalimantan, for how long?’
‘Two or three weeks, no real fixed date, it depends on what we find. Kate wants to get up to Taipei.’
‘We’re trying to set up an exhibition of treasures from the National Museum, it’s a little complicated, they’re afraid of Beijing trying to seize them,’ said Kate a little too quickly, embarrassed by the presence Chen Li.
Chen Li laughed politely, ‘Don’t worry about me. In any case the government in Beijing sees Taiwan as part of China, so for them the treasures are in safe keeping.’
‘Chen Li doesn’t get involved in politics,’ Erkki said with a laugh.
He was right about the food, it really was excellent, accompanied by a fine Australian white wine. After many years in Singapore, Erkki knew his restaurants. He was a man of taste and cultivated to a degree untypical of most Finns, even those who had attained a worldly status.
Scott Fitznorman was a reputed and successful dealer in fine antiques and owned a fine arts gallery at the upper end of Faubourg Saint Honoré in Paris, specialised in Asiatic and ethnic art, with branches in Zurich and London, and links to galleries in the USA, notably in Los Angeles, the home of many wealthy collectors. He travelled frequently to Asia in his search of the kind of fine art objects he had on show in his galleries, destined for discerning collectors. On occasions he acquired special pieces on behalf of clients who wished to remain anonymous, from the great auction houses such as Drouot, or Christie’s, in Paris or London, but the discovery of rare and original pieces was his greatest reward, which was also question of business. A fine objet d’art discovered in some small remote town or village in Asia could fetch many many times the investment made in finding it when compared to the prices proposed by auction houses and international wholesale antique dealers.
Fitznorman was well-known in the world of rare Asian antique art, especially for his flair in tracking down highly valued collectors items in an ever shrinking world, and also for his discerning taste in valued ethnic art. His spacious apartment in the Marais, on place des Vosges, was a well protected treasure house, decorated with some of the finest objects collected over many years from the remote corners of the Asia.
Pleased with himself, Erkki explained that though technically speaking business was lousy, he personally was doing extremely well, his clients were waiting for the turn around in the local economies, which banks and financial institution were predicting for the end of the following year. Fitznorman, however, was not so sure the things would improve quickly, as news broke of fresh rioting in Jakarta and political corruption at high level in Kuala Lumpur.
‘In any case you could say that we’re in a holding position at the moment,’ Erkki continued. ‘My clients have several major contracts in Indonesia which have virtually stalled and there’s a lot of outstanding monies, in addition to that there’s also contracts they have signed, but not come into force because of the crisis. I suppose it’s a case of wait and see!’
‘And your own position?’
‘As steady as a rock, the bastards can’t do without me,’ he laughed. His fees continued to roll in and would continue to do so. His clients could not just bail out, the financial consequences would be too great. Besides Erkki spoke the local languages and had all the connections, he persuaded them it was not the first and would not be last regional crisis to make waves in their business.
He reminded his Finnish friends their most serious crisis had arrived with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been a decisive factor for certain of his clients investing heavily in the Asian market.
Since then certain Asian economies had tanked and Russia had started looking up, but that was before Putin got too ambitions. There were not that many other possibilities, South America was one, but it was a difficult market with a reputation for economic ups and downs, in addition they spoke Spanish, which the Finns did not. So, with Erkki’s convincing arguments they decided to hang-in, in the meantime reducing their expenses to sustainable levels, ready for the ‘Rebound’ the Malaysian leader was promising the markets.
In addition to his interest in Khmer art, Erkki was also a keen collector of Chinese ceramics and South East Asian ethnic art. The interests that the two men shared had formed the base for the solid friendship they had built up over the years.
‘So apart from business have you discovered anything new recently?’ Fitznorman asked, changing the subject.
‘Not much, with this mess of a crisis I’ve been pretty busy, you know they’re flying in and out, trying to make head or tail of what’s going on with their contracts, giving me a real headache.’
The two girls had struck it off and were engaged in a deep conversation, uninterested by the men’s business, exchanging opinions on Chinese porcelain.
‘I’ve got a little bit of information that might interest you,’ Erkki said lowering his voice.
“Yes, if you can find something interesting for me?’ Erkki said with a sly wink.
‘Okay, okay,’ Fitznorman laughed. It was a little game they had played before. Erkki picked up titbits of information from clients that he had passed on to Fitznorman in return for a something to add to his collection, if the hunt turned out to be good.
‘The other day, I had dinner with a couple of guys from a Finnish engineering firm, they’d been carrying out survey work for a mining company near the Indonesian-Malaysian border in Borneo. They visited a few very isolated longhouses and talked about seeing a number of human skulls and what they described as large jars…’
‘Right, and apparently the villagers have very little contact with the outside.’
‘Can you be more precise about the location?’
‘I have a copy of their survey maps in the office. Drop by tomorrow and I’ll run you off a copy, if you don’t flash it about.’
‘Don’t worry Erkki, count on my discretion, it’s just between the two of us.’
Fitznorman made reservations at the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort Hotel, almost three hundred kilometres from Kuching, a four hour drive and a fast boat ride to the hotel jetty. The Longhouse Resort was built on the banks of a broad man-made lake surrounded by dense jungle covered hills. The lake was formed by a hydroelectric dam built to provide power to the rapidly developing region of West Sarawak.
The hotel had been conceived by the Sarawak government for the development of eco-tourism and completed a couple of years previously, it was managed by the Kuching Hilton that advertised it as Borneo’s nature retreat. It offered one hundred comfortable guest rooms with jungle trekking in the national park and river safaris up the nearby rivers to visit the Iban, descendants of head-hunters, and their longhouses.
It was quite unlike any other Hilton, constructed in a form designed to resemble the local longhouses, built in wood and natural materials and decorated in the traditions of Borneo’s ethnic arts.
After crossing the mist covered lake they arrived in the vast and airy reception area of the hotel, it was decorated with beautifully carved hardwood panels and beams from the nearby forests, with traditional furniture and textiles. It did not take them long to discover that though they were not totally alone, the hotel was almost deserted with the exception of the personnel. There were very few guests, less than a dozen rooms were occupied, a sure sign that the crisis was beginning to bite.
Fitznorman had visited the hotel on his last expedition and had started to explore the longhouses reachable by river, one or two day’s boat journey into the interior. He had found that whilst they offered a certain authenticity, they had been transformed by the influence of the outside world since the construction of the dam, and tourism following the opening of the hotel, even though tourism was still in a very hesitant phase.
Jungle trekking was not exactly designed for the ‘sun, sand and booze’ trippers, though unfortunately that would certainly come with a little persistence and patience on the part of tour operators, encouraged by the Sarawak state government. For the present its appeal was more to those who wanted a little eco-exploration in comfort and without any serious danger. The upper ranks of business people and expatriates from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur were amongst the pioneers exploring the region.
On the other hand, however, it could not really be said that the Hilton was designed for hardy adventurers, mountaineers, potholers, or new age anthropologists, who scorned tourists as if they themselves were amongst the daring explorers of the late nineteenth century.
At the start of the new millennium there were no longer any distant frontiers to be explored. Any backpacking explorer with time and a shoestring budget could hop on a Singapore Airlines flight to Pontianak and then head inland by river bus, or road, to a town such as Putussibau, where he could find guides who would help him to risk his life crossing the Muller Mountains to some unheard-of remote village before continuing on to the east coast town of Samarinda.
Dangerous? It was certainly not for the weak hearted or those having fragile constitutions. But who cared if a few amateur adventurers of the extreme wanted to risk their lives, as do tens of thousands do each year, either on the face of Mount Blanc, or on trips to a thousand strange distant adventure parks around the world, potholing, scuba diving, trekking across deserts or exploring volcanoes.
Fitznorman had no illusions about the risks of such adventures, he sought no challenge or proof of his own mortality by leaving his body to rot in a dark corner of the humid rainforest. His own justification was more down to earth – business – searching out rare examples of ethnic art and antique heirlooms that he could sell at a profit in one of his galleries. His travels represented a significant but worthwhile investment, the costs were always well justified, paid by his discoveries, always sold at a substantial profit, the rarer the object the higher the price he paid, the higher the gain. He ran a successful business assisted by Marie-Helene Springer, his executive manager, her dedication to the business gave him, as owner and founder of the East Asia Galeries SA., freedom, freedom to travel, to stay in fine hotels, to eat in good restaurants and to appreciate the finer things in life. Success also gave him what he desired most, independence to indulge his own pleasure, and when the going got hard, in some hot and dusty corner of the world, he could return to the comfort of a king-size bed in a five star hotel by the next flight back to civilisation.
He entertained relations with wealthy collectors and institutions in Europe, the USA and Japan, they were his privileged clients, willing to pay thousands and tens of thousands and on occasions hundreds of thousands of dollars for the fine art objects, rare tribal art and textiles that formed the core of the ‘collections’ presented in his galleries and at the major antique fairs. The private collectors were the anonymous rich, who were not a disappearing species, on the contrary they existed in much greater numbers than could be imagined, crisis or no crisis. It was the rare tribal art and the heirlooms of tribal peoples that were in short supply and very few places remained on the planet where they could still be found. The search was his adventure, the satisfaction of finding the unfindable, a rare object in an isolated longhouse, where the headman or ‘Tuay’ had not already exchanged the family’s heirlooms against a chainsaw ‘Made in China’.
On his previous trip to Sarawak Fitznorman had chartered a light plane, a four seater Piper 28 at the Flying Club in Kuching, explaining to the curious owner, he was an ethnologist and wanted explore the upper reaches of the rivers that flowed down from the border region to localise the isolated longhouses built along their banks for his research. He had obtained a photography permit and flew up to Bandar Sri Aman, a small market town, an hour’s flight from Kuching on the small plane, it was situated on the Lupar River and had an airstrip from which he could fly over the area leading up to the Batang Ai National Park and along the Sarawak-Kalimantan border. Flying into the adjoining Indonesian airspace was not permitted.
That was almost seven months earlier and he now planned to continue his exploration by a small expedition, heading upriver to the longhouses he had pinpointed and suspected had very little contact with the outside world.
He had hired a reputable local guide, Winston Marshall, who took charge of organising the ten day jungle expedition. Marshall, who Fitznorman had got to know during his past visits, respected him as a specialist in ethnic art and knew he was no novice, capable of living rough when the need arose.
The transport was composed of four ‘perau’ – longboats, each with a crew of two Iban tribesmen. Marshall wore a slouch hat in the style of a Hollywood hero, under the hat was a red bandana that prevented transpiration dripping into his eyes, hidden by coke bottom glasses in very thick black frames, attached by a boot lace behind his head. He cut a very raffish figure with his machete slung in his belt, wearing high laced jungle boots.
Winston Marshall was a jungle survival specialist who had spent many years in the Gurkha Regiment of the British Army, training commandos and airmen in survival techniques in the dense Borneo jungles that covered the mountainous Malaysian-Indonesian border region, a terrain that he knew like the back of his hand.
In spite of his very Anglo-Saxon name, he was in fact a mixture of Indian, Burmese, Scots and Australian. His father had fought during World War II in Burma where he had met and married Winston’s mother.
After retiring from the army, Winston had set up his small company Borneo Exploration Sdn. Bhd., where he hired his services to all kinds of businesses and government organisations. Amongst his clients he could count the armies of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, the major oil companies that explored and drilled wells in Borneo, the forestry departments of Malaysia and Indonesia, and a multitude of logging and mining companies that operated throughout the region.
His wife came from one of the so-called Hill Tribes of the region. He had lived amongst them for years, learning to identify many hundreds of trees and plants as well as the animals, birds and insects that lived in the forest. He knew exactly what plant was needed to care for the daily ills and even more serious sicknesses without recourse to modern medicine. He knew exactly what trees or creepers supplied the required materials for making weapons, tools, clothes and shelters. He knew all the fruits, leaves and roots that could supply food and drink in the forest. He knew how to hunt every kind of animal and bird, where to find honey or edible insects and how to fish in the rivers and streams of the jungle.
Experience had shown him that the forest could be hell or a Garden of Eden and whilst his knowledge was no greater than that of the ancient communities of forest dwellers, he had the advantage of the know-how and training of a soldier with benefits of modern technology.
The following morning they left soon after breakfast. The four longboats were moored at the jetty and their crews waiting patiently. Winston gave instructions to the hotel porter to load their belongings onto the boats that were to carry equipment and supplies, and hopefully, on the return journey filled with valuable collectors’ items, another boat was loaded with drums of fuel and a spare motor. As soon as they were installed, the small convoy headed across the mist covered lake in an easterly direction towards one of the rivers that flowed down from the mountains. The boats cut through the still waters where the only other movement was the occasional bird, which rose from the still dense vegetation that overhung the river, disturbed by the noise of the boats motors.
They had planned ten days on the Sungai, spending two or three nights in each of the longhouses and with side trips to their nearby neighbours. That would be enough to explore the potential stock of quality heirlooms in the catchment area of the Sungai.
The first day was a four hour journey to the nearest longhouse of any interest, broken by a couple of brief stops to stretch their legs and drink. Winston had settled down his hat pulled over his forehead for a nap in the first longboat, seated between the look-out who was half standing in the prow and the helmsman who manoeuvred the boat following the cries and signs from the look-out. The river was a mine field of logs and branches that sometimes floated just below the surface, with stones and boulders in the shallower reaches, which could swamp or overturn a boat in an instant, throwing its unwary passengers into the river.
The endless staccato hammering of the motor was hypnotic, only the rush through the rapids broke the monotony as they pushed upstream, passing isolated Iban longhouses surrounded by small patches of pepper and mountain rice. It was just after midday when they caught a glimpse of the longhouse where they planned to spend their first night, it lay at a bifurcation in the river, almost hidden by the forest, where a small floating jetty, built of bamboo poles bound together by rattan cords, and a couple of dugout pirogues moored alongside, swung gently in the current.
The traditional longhouse was built on stilts in axe-hewn timber, tied with rattan cords, roofed with leaf thatch, with a boardwalk and steps leading down to a boat jetty. The Ibans built their longhouses to last for several years, then when the small plots of land they cultivated in jungle clearings, along the river banks, were exhausted of nutrients, they gathered together their belongings, animals and reusable elements of the structure, and moved upriver, to another site where they built a new longhouse.
The steps leading up the slope to the boardwalk were cut into the laterite clay, reinforced by rough cut lengths of wood. A couple of black pigs were sprawled on the steps surrounded by a litter of squealing piglets. The doorway to the long house was three metres above the ground, a platform standing on the stilts that provided protection from flooding whenever the river rose with the heavy rains during the rainy season.
Winston pointed the way upwards, climbing a steep notched log that served as a ladder, followed by Fitznorman and Kate. A dog barked and the headman, a small Iban with a deeply wrinkled face dressed in jeans and a blue tee shirt, appeared on the platform. He smiled slightly to Winston and languidly lifted his hand in a sign of welcome to the visitors.
The sun was high above the canopy of the trees, beams of light, traversed by small winged creatures, fell like columns through the vegetation on the opposite bank of the river.
They followed the old man into the longhouse, the light was dim in the ruai, where a wide veranda know as an awah, served as a common space, overlooking the river, a communal area where the people of the long house socialised. Two or three oil lamps, suspended from the ceiling, gave off a dim glow above a small group of people seated on rattan mats, curls of blue smoke drifted upwards through the heavy air.
The headman led them forward and invited them to be seated on the mats. The ruai was in effect a veranda open on one side overlooking the river, to the left hand side were the individual family rooms, or biliks as they were called by the Iban. The seated Ibans nodded to the new arrivals and made signs of welcome. Winston translated the simple exchanges as the Tuay lifted a hand and a bottle of tuak appeared on a tray with several small glasses.
The Tuay sat next to Fitznorman and Kate, as the women of the longhouse, who had gathered around, observed her with unabashed curiosity. A young Iban man, who appeared to be mentally retarded, smiled at them and touched Kate’s hair. He giggled and pointed to a rattan basket suspended on the bamboo rafters overhead, at first glance it seemed to contain dusty coconut shells, then as their eyes pierced the murky shadows they saw the gaping eyes of human skulls and large grinning teeth.
The heads of the Iban’s enemies, whose skulls were preserved, symbolised bravery. A head was believed to bring strength, good luck and prosperity to a longhouse. It was one of the most prized possessions and not long ago it had not been uncommon for fathers, whose daughters were about to marry, to demand human heads as dowries from the bridegroom.
‘They are very old, from my grandfather’s time or before,’ the Tuay reassured us in broken English.
Fitznorman was comforted to learn they were not too recent. Looking at the Tuay, he calculated he was probably about sixty-five years old, maybe more, possibly less, it was difficult to know if Ibans in the forest aged more rapidly or lived to great ages. In any case sixty-five plus, or two generations, would situate his grandfather’s time somewhere back in the early to mid-twentieth century, before WW II, when the forests of Borneo were known to a mere handful of hardy Europeans and when head hunting was still fashionable.
After welcoming toasts and exchange of news in the Iban dialect Winston got down to practical matters. They unloaded their bags and material carrying them to the bilik indicated by the Tuay. That evening before eating, they slowly got around to business with questions on the handicrafts, which the women of the longhouse made for sale to local traders who passed by from time to time taking them for sale in the markets of the towns beyond the lake.
Fitznorman and Kate politely examined the rattan baskets and mats, then one of the men presented a pahang, its handle carved in the form of a fish eagle’s head, in a wooden scabbard, to illustrate its usefulness he pointed to others hanging on the wall, worn and obviously well used.
Winston carefully broached the question of heirlooms and ritual textiles in the catchment area of the Sungai, as Kate with the permission of the Tuay and some small gifts occupied herself making a photographic record of their visit.
They were then invited to eat the meal that had been prepared, rice and chicken – the wiry kind that scratched the earth under the longhouse. After diner they set up the insect repellent unrolled their sleeping bags and settled down under their anti-mosquito nets to sleep after their long day up the Sungai Batang Ai and Sungai Lalang. The noise from the forest was incessant, the whirring and clicking of insects with the calls and cries of birds and animals.
The next morning they were awoken as dawn was just breaking by the crowing of the rooster followed by barking dogs and the creaking of the longhouse as the families rose in the adjoining biliks. The morning shower consisted of a quick plunge in the river avoiding the thought of tropical parasites which theoretically could not survive in the fast flowing current. Then breakfast, instant coffee in freshly boiled mineral water and a couple of slices of supermarket bread and marmalade from the stock of food that Winston had included in the supplies brought up river with them. That, together with the beer, soft drinks and bottled water was the only concession made for food. The rest was from the longhouse gardens and the Ibans domestic animals, mostly chicken and pork.
Outside life got slowly under way as the blue smoke from the fires drifted upwards in the moist early morning air, the temperature was refreshing 23°C. Very few animals or birds could be seen in the forest, though insects were present everywhere and in every form and colour imaginable.
There was nothing of particular of interest for Fitznorman in the longhouse, but through Winston’s probing they learnt that further upriver there was a longhouse where the old Tuay had recently died and the younger people were eager to sell their old useless things to buy motors and radios.
They left after breakfast and continued their boat journey up stream. Fitznorman compared the map he had prepared with the aid of his aerial photographs and satellite images to that Erkki had given him in Singapore. The details on the map made by the Finnish engineering team who had exploring for mineral deposits in the region was more technical, but they had carefully noted all the longhouses they had seen.
On the fourth day they made a halt at a remote longhouse, near to the border with Indonesian Kalimantan, where it seemed the families had visibly very little contact with the exterior.
They decided to stop for a couple of nights to explore the area, it was a much needed pause, they were both exhausted after the constant noise and buffeting in the rapids as the boats had struggled against the current as the river rose amongst the densely forested hills.
Unable to sleep Fitznorman made his way down to the river bank, the night sky was clear, lit by a full moon. He looked at the stars unhampered by the haze of pollution that covered civilisation. His mind wandered back in time to when men lived in the same forest in primitive isolation, probably not more than one or two hundred years previously, before the arrival of the outsiders. A time when the forest provided their every need for both body and mind. They depended entirely on themselves and their family, the group consisted of close relatives, when even the notion of tribes was vague, perhaps the next nearest neighbours spoke another dialect or language, maybe they were friends or perhaps enemies, in any case they were probably head-hunters, even cannibals. Life was certainly fraught with dangers, but it was not necessarily nasty.
What was extraordinary in those remote areas was that life had not changed on Borneo for thousands of years, since a time long before civilization and history had been invented, or before countries and political boundaries had been imagined.
Today’s inhabitants of Borneo, such as the Ibans and the Dayaks were very recent peoples, arriving probably not more than three thousand years ago. Before that other men had lived on the islands of South East Asia, for tens of thousands of years, for hundreds of thousands of years, as climates changed and as the oceans rose and fell.
The prehistoric site at Mulu, a few hundred kilometres to the north was the proof that man had lived on the island of Borneo 40,000 years before. But the most significant evidence of ancient man was the discovery in the gravel deposits on the banks of the Solo River, on Java, of the remains of Pithecanthropus erectus, in 1890, when Indonesia had been part of the Dutch East Indies Empire.
The skull was later dated to being 1,800,000 years old. Its finder, Eugene Dubois, died a recluse, after being ridiculed and heaped with scorn by the learned anthropologists of that time. It was only many decades later that his discovery was recognized for its true value, a fossil hominid who had lived in Java at the very dawn of humanity.
Dubois had commenced by exploring caves in Sumatra, he was the first person to search for the prehistory of man in the Indies, and he was rewarded for his work by his extraordinary discoveries. The same principal was applied in Borneo by the British anthropologist, Tom Harrison, in the nineteen thirties, at Mulu, where there were countless unknown and unexplored caves, certain had already yielded evidence of Stone Age man and primitive cave art.
Were those primitive men the ancestors of the present day Papuans of Niu Guini, or the Aborigines of Australia? It was difficult to say. If the Australian aborigines’ ancestors had reached the southern continent 60,000 years ago, there should be signs of their presence along the route that they took on their long voyage of island hopping.
It was not unreasonable to think that Borneo was one of the stops on their long voyage. When Homo sapiens arrived on Borneo did they find other men?
Primitive men had lived undisturbed for countless generations on the coast or on the banks of rivers at the edge of the virtually impenetrable primary forests?
Even today the forest is impenetrable, the proof is that even the Ibans and Dayaks live on the river banks and only use the forest for hunting and foraging. A European could survive not more than three days or so alone in such a hostile environment as the primary rain forest, no doubt an explanation why Borneo was colonized so late in history.
Whenever primitive man migrated, it was essentially in search of food. When game or foraging became scarce, or if competition became too great, whether from others of their own kind or from the animals, they simply moved on. They had advanced by short steps, very short steps, perhaps a mere couple of kilometres a year. But 10,000 years represents a great distance.
The inhabitants of these isles, those who had crossed when land bridges existed, established their dwelling places on coasts and river banks. When waves of aggressive new migrant populations arrived, maybe more evolved forms of men with more advanced technologies, they pushed the existing populations deeper and deeper into the forest taking the best living sites for themselves.
For Kate Lundy, ten days with the Ibans, was not simply a personal experience, she had also agreed to prepare an article for the review ‘Art and Ethnology’ a bi-monthly monthly publication, edited in collaboration with the Musée Guimet. She had persuaded the editor, an old family friend, to agree to an article, a discussion on the impact of modern civilisation on the use of traditional utensils in the everyday life of longhouse communities.
For centuries Borneo had been one of the main destinations of the heavily laden Chinese junks that plied their wares of porcelain and stoneware in exchange for spices, exotic wood and feathers. Until recent times these ceramics were still abundantly found in every day use, or as revered heirlooms amongst the tribal communities. Her research would be supplemented by data she hoped to find at the University of Sarawak and in the State Museum and Library.
With that in mind they had briefly visited the museum on their arrival in Kuching and discussed their project with the director of Anthropology and Ethnology, Doctor Nordin Ibrahim, with whom Fitznorman had exchange information over many years. Nordin was charmed by Kate and gave them a personal tour of the museum. Kate was particularly interested by the photographic archives that gave a considerable insight into the everyday life and traditions of the local tribes, more interesting than many of the reports of travellers and administrators of the period, as they at least transformed the reports into graphic images with real people in the environment of that time. It was not unusual to see in the background of the photographs artefacts and objects that were of great interest to modern specialists.
They paused at one of the displays where Fitznorman had his attention drawn to a photograph that was entitled ‘The dance of the heads’. A group of young women in sarongs woven in the traditional patterns of the Ibans and adorned with necklaces and bracelets appeared to dance in a slow moving choreography, seeming to move rather stiffly not unlike well brought-up young women, the objects they were passing from hand to hand were heads, human heads, those of young men whose skin looked dark, but not wizened or shrivelled, to all evidence heads that had been recently severed.
Kate looked in silent horror at the faces of the young women, frozen in enigmatic smiles not unlike La Giaconda, there was no sign of repulsion, it was no different to a coconut harvest dance.
In another gallery of the museum were the reconstructions of longhouse dwellings and several baskets containing human skulls hung from the roof beams, certainly the trophies of past forays against neighbouring enemies, after all it was a tradition that ran through the whole of the South East Asian archipelago, from Malaya through Borneo, the Celebes, the Molocas and the islands of Papua New Guinea.
Who were these peoples? Where did they come from? These were questions that had always fascinated Fitznorman.
Nordin replied to their questions in great detail, guiding them with his vast knowledge of the tribes of Borneo. His own ancestry included an Iban grandfather and a Bidayuh grandmother, on one side, and on the other, two Chinese grandparents, all of whom had contributed to his multi-cultural education. His father had married a Chinese girl and he later converted to Islam. As a result Nordin spoke many of the languages of the ethnically mixed population of Sarawak, composed of Malay, Chinese and Dayak communities.
A STRANGE DISCOVERY
Winston learnt from the Iban headman that there were caves in the nearby mountainous border region where the spirits of great headmen and warriors dwelt. Such caves had been held sacred for generations and Fitznorman knew that burial jars and other interesting artefacts had been found in similar caves.
After studying the Erkki’s map, Fitznorman decided to continue upriver to a couple of isolated longhouses nearby the caves that the Tuay had described, close to the Indonesian border. If they caves yielded nothing of interest, he remembered Erkki talking of Martabans and with a little luck he could perhaps make a good barter deal with one of the younger longhouse headmen.
He never dwelt too long on the ethical arguments against such transactions, he knew only too well that it was either he, or the Chinese dealers from Kuching, who would end up with the heirlooms.
It was a hard ride, almost six hours to the first longhouse, the river had become shallow and the swiftly flowing rapids greatly slowed their progress, forcing them to advance on foot pushing the longboats knee deep through the swirling waters when the passage became too difficult.
It was early in the afternoon when they arrived at the longhouse where the Tuay agreed to them spending the night in exchange for fuel and batteries. He led them into the ruai and invited them to be seated on the rattan mats, making a sign to one of the Iban men who were watching, and who disappeared for a moment then returned with a bottle of tuak and several small glasses.
The Tuay filled the glasses and handed them around to each of the guests. They toasted and drank.
They talked in subdued voices as Winston enquired about the conditions up river and whether there were other longhouses further upstream. Then carefully he questioned the Tuay about the nearby hills that formed the vague the border area between Malaysia and Indonesian Kalimantan, asking if on their hunting forays his men had seen any signs of Indonesian army patrols. The Tuay merely nodded, then talked about the spirits that lived in the nearby hills.
‘He says there are caves here haunted by the spirits of ancestors.’
‘Ask him which spirits.’
‘They believe in all kinds of spirits in the jungle, animals, plants and those of their ancestors. There are spirits and individuals of evil intent, like humans, who they believe can enter into a bilik through the front door. They protect themselves by carving powerful figures on the door of the bilik such as twin tailed crocodiles and twin pythons coiled along each side,’ Winston translated. ‘Between the open fangs of the python and the head of the crocodile is carved a frog to serve as food for these spirits in the belief that should no food be provided, the hungry spirits could turn upon them and devour them. Crocodiles and pythons have great power in the Iban spirit world.’
Another round of drinks was served.
The discussion continued between Winston and the Tuay with the other Iban men joining in. It was an earnest discussion in low voices.
Winston turned to Fitznorman, ‘He says there are ancestor’s spirits there and they cannot disturb them.’
‘Try offering him something.’
They talked a moment and Winston nodded to Fitznorman, who dug into his rucksack took out a fine hunting knife. The Tuay took the gift and placed it to one side, then poured another round of tuak and toasted his visitors. They drank. The Tuay stood up and indicated them that he was ready to leave. Fitznorman looked at his watch, there were still three hours to nightfall, Winston understood the question and nodded to the Tuay in agreement.
They would take two boats. Fitznorman took time to slip a powerful flashlight into his rucksack before climbing into the second boat, as Winston joined the Tuay in the first. Kate decided to remain behind, she had enough of the river for the day and preferred to photograph the longhouse women and their children.
After twenty minutes upstream the Tuay waved in the direction of a shallow bank of stones and pebbles near a bend in the river where they beached the boats. As the other men occupied themselves with hauling the boats up to a secure mooring point, the Tuay pointed further along the bank at the end of the stony beach to a spot where a small stream cascaded out from a rocky gully into the river.
The Tuay refused to venture any further than the mooring point leaving Winston, followed by Fitznorman, to make their way forward to the cascade. They carefully clambered up the moss covered rocks making their way further into the gully where they saw a water fall that ran down the face of a weathered limestone cliff. Urged on by shouts from the Tuay who had advanced a little further along the riverbank they made their way up towards the fall where they found a pool of fresh clear water. It was surrounded by a jumble of moss covered limestone slabs that had at some time been detached from the cliff. They continued, having the doubtful choice between the slippery rocks and the vigorous vegetation at the foot of the surrounding cliff. Reaching the fall they could go no further than peer through the thick creepers that hung down forming a dense curtain that obstructed an opening.
Winston made a sign, Fitznorman stood to one side, then he hacked at the creepers with his pahang exposing a cleft in the face of the limestone cliff, then with after hacking and forcing the vegetation aside, they climbed through the opening and found themselves under the rock overhang, where in the half-light they made out a dark hole, the entrance to a cave.
They advanced cautiously along the slippery edge, where to one side the curtain of water crashed down into the pool. Fitznorman pointed, indicating Winston should explore the other side of fall, as he, taking out his flashlight, stepped cautiously into darkness. Once inside the cave’s entrance the floor was wet and flat, he carefully made his way further inside, directing the beam first on the floor and then on the walls of the cave.
It was not very large, more like a tunnel, the floor rose at a shallow angle and after a few metres he arrived in a small gallery filled with strange white limestone stalactites and stalagmites that glistened in the beam of his flashlight, where the air was very much cooler. He searched in his sack and found a whistle and a ball of twine, part of the exploration kit that he had learnt to carry with him after a few alarming experiences in the forest and other strange places. The last thing he wanted to do was get lost, he attached one end of the twine to a stalactite, as Ariane’s thread, letting it unwind as he continued, following the beam of his flashlight deeper into the cavern.
Feeling a slight current of air, he shone his flashlight on the wall of another small gallery, on the left there was a breach in the rock, an opening that rose to the roof. He advanced carefully over the damp rock, and could feel the current of air becoming more tangible. A little further it became evident there an opening of some sort in the rock where the outside air could enter. Then the floor sloped downwards rather steeply, which explained the rise of the warmer air to the other galleries. He moved down the slope about twenty metres shinning the flashlight ahead until the beam was lost in the darkness of what appeared to be a much larger gallery. He did not have very much more string and would have to retrace his steps after another few minutes.
The floor of the gallery was relatively flat and dry. He swung the torch towards the roof, which at the point where he stood seemed to be about four or five metres high. It also appeared unusually dry. He directed the beam ahead and saw the roof rose confirming it was indeed a large gallery.
There were dense black traces on the roof just above him, a sure sign that previous visitors had used burning torches to find their way in the darkness. On closer inspection he saw that the soot was covered with a light crystalline structure...it was not recent.
On the floor were the remains of rattan baskets and a pile of stones. There were also the scattered bones, the remains of long dead men, it was certainly a kind of burial ground and did not appear to have been visited for a very long time.
A little further on he heard the noise of running water, he swung his torch across the floor and saw a small stream of water crossing the gallery, it had cut a shallow gully in the floor. Beneath the smooth surface the ground seemed to be composed of deposits accumulated over eons of time, earth and other debris carried by a stream or flash flooding, the droppings of bats and other creatures that had inhabited the cave, or perhaps airborne matter that had been drawn in by the air currents that ventilated the galleries.
Fitznorman shone the torch over the stream’s irregular bed, a reflection caught his eye, a pale coloured stone embedded in edge just above the water. He prodded it with his stick, it gave slightly, he pushed harder dislodging the stone which tumbled into the water. He stooped down and picked it up shaking the water off. It was broad and flat, a little larger than a man’s hand, not heavy, perhaps a bone or some kind of ivory.
He pointed his camera at the floor and snapped the spot as a precaution, remembering mechanically that once an artefact had been removed from the spot where it was discovered, only the finder could know where it had come from, with the risk that any essential scientific evidence be lost forever. He wiped his find on his shirt he slipped it into his sack. If it was of interest and he could return the next day, he then started to wind up his ball of twine following it back to the water fall.
Once back outside the damp heat hit him like a sauna. Winston was sitting wearily on a rock. It was just the moment to take a refreshing shower under the cascading water fall, cooling off before returning to the boats. Once relaxed and feeling refreshed he realised that the cave may hide something interesting. On the beach he said nothing, making no sign that he had found anything special. Winston squinted at him through his thick lens, he was now in a hurry to get to the longhouse to change and eat.
When they retired to their bilik he took the bone from the knapsack and showed it to Kate, who shrugged, it was just an old bone, nothing very interesting. He ignored her and under the dim light he turned it over inspecting it closely. It was not heavy and was covered with a thin layer of what appeared to be hardened earth or dust and filled on the inner concave surface with a thick gangue, he scrapped it with his thumb nail uncovering a greyish white surface. The outside surface had been worn smooth, the bone was no doubt from one of the many animals that had probably been pursued by predators into the caves, perhaps dragged there by tigers or other felines to be devoured, or had simply got lost in the dark and starved to death.
As he turned it over he saw that it thickened into what appeared to be a heavy ridge under which were a pair shallow arcs about ten centimetres wide – orbital ridges! To the back was another thick edge that he recognised as the occipital ridge. It was a clearly a skull cap of some kind of an animal, perhaps an orangutan or a honey bear. The dim orange light of the lamp they’d hung from the bamboo ceiling was insufficient to provide him with any further information.
The evening heat in the bilik was intense, the only noise was that of the tropical deluge that suddenly fell without any warning hammering on the roof of the longhouse, at that time of the year it came like clockwork, every day as night fell. It stopped as suddenly as it had started and Fitznorman stepped out of the longhouse seeking relief from the stifling atmosphere. Though the rain had ceased though heavy drops continued to fall from the canopy of the forest and a mist rose from the damp ground. The night insects then started their infernal ballet, whirring, clicking and buzzing, attracted by the lamps, endless numbers, many seemingly seeking his tender skin as a likely source of nourishment.
He returned to the bilik and lit another coil of insect repellent then crawled under the mosquito net onto the mattress next to Kate and fell into an uneasy sleep.
He was awakened by the crowing of the longhouse cocks and the creaking of the bamboo floor as the Ibans began to stir preparing for their day. A child cried softly for his morning milk. A bird cry echoed from the surrounding jungle.
It must have been six as the dawn light filtered though the flimsy walls of his bilik. The sun rose quickly on the equator, with no more than a quarter of an hour from night to full daylight.
He rose and turning his back to Kate, still dozing, and urinated into a plastic bucket, the longhouse was not the Kuching Hilton. He then washed his hands and face in a small basin of water which he then threw into a bucket that he carried from his bilik to the river, passing the elderly Iban women preparing the breakfast, who hardly lifted their heads.
Outside the air had a certain freshness, he looked at the morning mist hanging heavily in the dense forest on the opposite side of the river, he made his way down to the water’s edge, past the pigs that had started nosing the ground in search of food, then past the boats tied to the jetty that swung gently in the stream. He emptied the bucket from the end of the jetty into the fast flowing river on the downstream side of the longhouse, rinsing it carefully, hygiene in the jungle was not a luxury.
He joined Winston Marshall squatting Iban style on the rattan mat for a breakfast of boiled rice, vegetables and eggs washed down with hot tea. Winston was speaking to the Tuay who explained that they were leaving to hunt in the forest after breakfast inviting Fitznorman to join them.
‘Well I’d like to go back to the caves after and explore a little further if you don’t mind.’
‘That’s no problem,’ said Winston, ‘I’ll get the Tuay to send a couple of the men with you.’
Fitznorman was relieved by the thought he would be unhindered, two of the Iban men would ferry him to the caves, waiting whilst he made a little more exploration.
After breakfast Marshall left with the Tuay, ‘a small expedition into the forest,’ he said. Once they were gone Fitznorman returned to the bilik where he collected his things to return to the cave. To the amusement of Kate he took the skull from his knapsack and started to examine it, turning it around in his hands, it resembled an oversize castanet with the wide ridges to the front and a smaller ridge to the back.
It did not seem to be fossilised as he had first thought. He vaguely recalled what he had heard when Kate had dragged him off to the conference given by Michel Brunet in Paris a few weeks earlier, a fossil is a bone that is mineralised, over thousands of years under certain conditions, the bone tissue being slowly replaced by minerals whilst the form of the bone remained.
It could have been the skull cap of an orangutan, but the form was too domed. It could not be that of a man either modern or very ancient. A modern human skull did not have those ridges and an ancient or prehistoric skull would be certainly fossilised.
Fitznorman was puzzled, he would show it to Marshall and the Ibans when they returned, in the meantime he would explore the cave a little further.
Back in the cave he had some difficulty to relocate the gallery where he had found the bone. He carefully inspected the floor as he searched through the tunnels, there were bird and bat droppings in the first part, but as he penetrated further the floor was less encumbered by guano. There were dead leaves and some feathers probably carried in by the wind, perhaps there were small rodents or the like who had made their home there.
Birds did not go that far into caves and bats could only penetrate in numbers when the access was relatively easy. It was obvious that the entrance to the cave must have been blocked for a very long time.
When he found the large gallery, he noted that the floor was as he had thought, fairly smooth, there was no debris not even dust, it glistened in the light as though covered with a thin film of humidity. The point where he had found the bone seemed to have been disturbed, probably by a flood stream that at some recent point in time had been diverted by a rock fall and cut a channel into the floor beneath its crystalline surface. The stream had now slowed to a trickle at the bottom of the channel.
He directed his flashlight up stream of the channel as it turned towards the wall of the gallery, the ground became uneven and shadows danced as he made his way to a pile of rocks that had probably been detached from the roof in some distant time. He continued carefully for another fifteen or twenty metres, turning to the left as he followed the stream. Then he saw a dim column of light that fell at an angle on a jagged mound of rock, part of the upper wall of the gallery had collapsed opening the way for a stream of water that trickled in gently from above.
There was no way to know when the flooding had occurred, underground streams like all flowing water follow the path of least resistance, if a rock fall occurs they are diverted following the next easiest downhill path.
The cave floor was made up of an accumulation of deposits, composed of dust blown in mixed with debris that had fallen from the roofs and walls. Sand and pebbles were carried in by the streams that formed over thousands of years with changes in the climate. Small animals such as mice or bats had left their droppings and bones. Bigger animals were much rarer, but left the bones of their prey. All this debris had accumulated in layers from a few centimetres thick to several metres thick in place. It was a kind of breccia that formed, solidified, cemented together by mineralised deposits from the water, drying and hardening with time. The action of the stream had cut into the breccia through the more friable agglomerate. Here and there large stones or pieces of rock jutted out.
Looking at the rough edges of the stream, he figured that its present path must have been fairly recent, probably due to a collapse somewhere deep inside the hill. During the rainy season, or in a heavy downpour, the stream had been transformed into a torrent, carrying debris and eroding a broader passage. The result was the rough edges along the banks of the stream.
After a few moments he arrived the point where he had made his find and now noticed different layers of accumulated debris, stones, gravel, and compact earth. He prodded the spot where he had picked up the bone with his stick, dislodging smaller pieces of rubble, he picked up what at first appeared to be two small stones whose form, on closer examination he recognised them at once...teeth.
It was nothing very unusual, in the past men had lived in such caves, or had used them as burial places, as was the case at Niah, just a few hundred kilometres to the north. Perhaps there had been cave dwellers who lived there in the more recent past. He pocketed the teeth and decided to leave things as they were undisturbed, he would check out the skull cap once he was back in Kuching.
Later that morning Winston returned from the hunt with the Ibans, they had killed a wild pig, whose bloody head lay on the floor of the longhouse. The animal had been shot, the days of hunting with bows and arrows or blow pipes were long gone, even in those isolated areas, the authorities allowed tribal peoples to own small calibre rifles for hunting.
‘So Scott, did you find anything interesting in your cave?’
Winston Marshall’s instinct had told him that Fitznorman had something and wanted to ask him some questions.
‘Well, I’ve found a few bones.’
‘Let’s have a look then.’
Fitznorman showed him the skull cap.
‘It looks like part of an orangutan’s skull,’ he said turning it over. He handed it to the Tuay.
‘It’s not an orangutan Sir, maybe a honey bear.’
Winston wiped his brow with his bandana, giving a doubtful look at the object.
‘A funny looking bear to me, I’d personally go for an orangutan.’
The Tuay said nothing, it was not in the Iban culture to contradict an outsider.
‘Is that all you found?’ he asked Fitznorman a little disappointedly.
Back in Kuching Fitznorman summed up the meagre results of the expedition, they had collected one unextraordinary Martaban, a boat paddle and a sword, both in black iron wood, and three Iban krises. Winston sensing his disappointment, proposed, if he had time before leaving for Singapore, they could visit one of his friends, a certain Sammy Kwok, an old trader who had accumulated a godown full of odds and ends received in payment from the Ibans for goods he had delivered to them over the years when they were short of cash.
In their suite at the Kuching Hilton Kate made an effort to console Fitznorman, telling him that she had enjoyed the expedition, even though from the business point of view it had not been an extraordinary success. ‘Perhaps the visit to Winston’s friend will turn up something interesting,’ she said hopefully.
He then busied himself putting some organisation into his affairs, then coming across the skull cap he re-examined it carefully, he prodded the gangue with the point of a pencil, it was quite friable, there was something troubling about it. Of the two teeth, one he recognised as a molar and the other an incisor, they were small, and whilst he was no expert, he concluded that they neither belonged to an orangutan or a honeybear, perhaps they did not even belong to the skull, the cave had no doubt been the home to many animals, and those who had inhabited it, whether they were men or carnivorous animals, had no doubt brought back a many different kinds of prey from their hunts.
The next day Kate planned to return to the Sarawak Natural History Museum, leaving Fitznorman with the morning free whilst she went about her work for the Art and Ethnology article she was preparing. He decided he would visit Sammy Kwok with Winston, then join Kate at the museum, where he could compare his find with the skulls of orangutans and men he had seen there ten days previously. In the meantime he switched on his laptop, as Kate took her shower and prepared herself for diner he could make a quick Internet search. After a few moments he connected to a specialised site, it was the department of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin.
Randomly he started to click away at the images of the skulls of human ancestors that appeared on the screen, he was surprised by the extraordinary quality of the pictures. He commenced with modern Homo sapiens. Their skulls were domed with a high almost vertical forehead and with ridges neither above the eye orbits nor at the nape of the skull.
He then selected Homo neanderthalensis and was surprised to see there were some resemblances, the brows were heavier and forehead slanted, however it appeared too ‘human’ compared to the skull cap he had laid on the writing desk next to him.
He then continued to click though the images, Peking Man, Homo ergaster and others, and as he did so he felt a mounting excitement. He stopped at Java Man, to be precise a picture with the reference Homo erectus Trinil 2. He felt weak with excitement as he turned to his skull cap and turned it over and around in his hand. The similarity was incredible. He had found a prehistoric fossil a major find. He wanted to jump up and run around the room, open the door and shout into the corridor.
He then came back to earth with a bump. His skull was not a fossil, there was not the slightest sign of mineralization. It was recent, maybe a few hundred years old at the most, nothing compared to the 1.8 million years of Java Man.
He downloaded the images to his PC, copied them, switched off the laptop and took his shower.
A shower and clean towels in a luxurious modern bathroom was not a hedonistic pleasure after ten days in the jungle. Fifteen minutes later taking the lift down he stopped off at the business centre and asked the girl on duty to print out the images from the USB, asking her to have them delivered to his room.
They dined in the hotel’s excellent Chinese restaurant and after took an evening walk through the nearby shopping complex, for once admiring the lights and the bustle of late shoppers and strollers.
Back in the suite he found the envelope from the business centre. He took a beer from the minibar, installed himself on the bed, and commenced flipping through the pictures before Kate pushed them aside, she had other ideas on how to celebrate their evening back in civilisation in a clean soft bed.
The next morning after Kate left for her appointment at the museum, Fitznorman called Winston Marshall for a visit to Sammy Kwok’s, just a couple of kilometres outside of Kuching City. After a short drive they turned off the road and parked on an unsurfaced siding, next to a dilapidated godown on a bank of the Kuching River.
Sammy was a wrinkled Chinese of indeterminate age, he pumped Fitznorman’s hand welcoming him like an old friend.
‘So, Winston has told you about my collection,’ he said laughing. ‘Come, I’ll show you.’
They discovered a vast and disorderly stock of goods of every description mixed together in an incredible confusion. Sammy complained he was too old, his family’s only thought was to get their hands on the site, demolish his godown and build an assembly plant for computer accessories. As Fitznorman made his way through the disorganised piles of rattan furniture, he found sacks of rice and drums of cooking oil and old packing cases, he followed Sammy through a vague passage between the jumble to the end of the godown, a kind of warehouse, where almost hidden from view in the dim light they came upon a vast dust covered assortment of junk that on closer inspection he saw consisted of jars, vases, Martabans, broken Chinese furniture and traditional textiles, stacked along with jumbles of spears, wooden statues, tribal art and even a dugout.
‘It needs sorting out,’ said Sammy. A remarkable understatement, thought Fitznorman.
At first glance it appeared to be junk, but then experience told him to look closer and he soon realised that there were many pieces that could have a considerable value in Europe. He feigned disappointment and disinterest as though it was almost worthless and asked the once wily Sammy Kwok what he intended to do with it all.
Sammy shrugged his shoulders, he was tired, his courage had waned, his only thought was retirement to a nice little house, modern, with a garden, which his family had offered him in exchange for the godown and a little money each month to pay for his beer and mahjong with his friends.
‘He’d just like to unload it all as quick as possible,’ said Winston after a quick exchange in some dialect that Fitznorman did not recognise.
‘All of it?’
Sammy nodded in agreement.
‘You take it all?’
They shook hands after coming to a deal, whereby Fitznorman would arrange immediate payment from his bank and with the help of his agent in Singapore would organize a local transport company to have all the material promptly moved to a godown near the Kuching Airport, where he would have one of his staff fly out to sort the collection and have the most interesting objects shipped to Europe. He confided Winston the job of supervising the removal so as to ensure nothing would be pilfered or dissimulated, and care to avoid damage or breakage.
That settled Winston then dropped Fitznorman off at the hotel, where he went to his room and picked up the skull cap again, wrapping it in a plastic laundry sack marked ‘Kuching Hilton’. He decided he would go by foot to the museum, along the river front, past the colourful market place and then on to the museum where he would join Kate.
It was hot, like it was every day in Sarawak, the daily temperature hovering around thirty degrees, year in year out. He was feeling lighter, business was definitely beginning to look a little more promising following his deal with Sammy, it was equally unexpected and quickly settled. He relaxed as he walked at an easy pace past the market towards the boat pier looking at the sparkling reflection of the brilliant equatorial sun on the Kuching River.
His mind wandered back to the photos the business centre had printed-out, there was an eerie likeness to the Trinil skull in Java, but it was physically impossible. Homo erectus had disappeared from the face of the earth many thousand of years ago.
The State Museum had two sections, the old colonial building situated in a spacious park dating back a century or so, and the modern section, on the other side of one of the city’s main avenues that ran right through the park.
After a moments hesitation he decide not ask for Professor Nordin with whom Kate had her meeting, but bought a ticket and made his way to the section where he found exhibits relating to the State’s wild life. Sure enough there was complete an orangutan skeleton as well as several skulls, just as he had remembered. He immediately remarked that the brain case of an orangutan was very much smaller than the skull cap.
The only other skulls were those of modern humans, which bore a somewhat closer resemblance to his find.
It was a puzzle and he considered questioning Nordin on the subject, but his possessive instinct got the better of him, from experience he realised that if the skull cap was of some special interest he would certainly be obliged to hand it over as an archaeological find.
RETURN TO PARIS
The return to Paris was filled with all the business problems that needed his personal attention after a three week absence. As usual Fitznorman had maintained daily contact with Marie-Helene by phone or internet, even during their expedition in the forest. However, there had been nothing that she could not directly handled in Paris and she never bothered him with unnecessary details, he had total confidence in her ability to handle the business.
Nevertheless, once back in his office, it was his responsibility to go over all the decisions that had been taken during his absence, bills that had been paid, taxes declarations and all the usual French administrative paperwork, before finally turning his attention to all the calls to be returned and appointments fixed for him over the next weeks.
He instructed Marie-Helene on the pressing need to get one of their experts out to Kuching, where an inventory had to be made on the contents of Kwok’s godown, expertising and photographing items of value, assisting their agents with export licences and customs formalities, a tricky business, finally instructing the shipping company in Kuching on the packing specifications and insurance arrangements for the different objects that were to be air-freighted to Paris.
His small and highly professional team of staff had been fully occupied with the preparations for the annual Antiques Fair held every year at the Grand Palais off the Champs Elysée. Then plans were to be made to handle increased activity in the North American market, where there were unexpected signs of activity with a buoyant market and a growing enthusiasm for tribal art from South East Asia.
It was almost a week before Fitznorman had time to get around to the skull cap that he had carefully placed in a drawer in his apartment office. It was a cover heading in a cultural events magazine on an exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme, dedicated to the evolution of man, which jogged his memory.
He at once tidied his papers and left, walking to the nearby metro station, Saint Paul, where he took the direction to Etoile and then changing for Trocadero, there he made his way to the museum for a quick visit.
The exhibition was spread out through a series of dimly light rooms, where show cases displayed bones and stones. The walls were covered with maps, graphs and tables that explained man’s evolutionary path to the present. Here and there were the photographs of anthropologists and their finds.
It was a Tuesday morning, it was quiet, he imagined that it was like that on working days, it was also possible that the exhibition had run out of steam, it was already well into its second month. The dimly lit rooms designed to create a dramatic effect gave to the contrary a dreary impression.
Only a gaggle of school children much too young to understand or appreciate the exhibition disturbed the silence. The two teachers in charge of them struggled to make their voices heard, pointing out the skeletons in a reconstituted cave setting, wasting their breath with words like Palaeolithic and Neanderthal.
The exhibition was small and he quickly located the section dedicated to Homo erectus, where authentic looking plaster casts of skulls were displayed. Java Man’s skull stood in a plexiglass case, lit by a single spot. He took the skull cap from his brief case and unwrapped the tissue towelling and aligned it as best he could.
A shiver ran down his spine, apart from the colour, the skull caps were not quite identical, but were nevertheless very similar in form. He turned his skull cap in all directions and at all angles, there was little doubt about the similarity to those in the plexiglass display. He sat down on a bench and tried to comprehend. How could a recent skull bone resemble that of the fossil of a million year old extinct ancestor?
After some minutes of thought he turned to the French West Indian museum security attendant sitting in a dimly lit corner and who wore an expression of infinite boredom on his face. He asked where he could find the scientific staff and was pointed to a pair of doors where a lift could take him to the third floor.
Behind the fine sober Neoclassical facade of the museum, situated in the Palais de Chaillot, built in 1937, for the Paris Universal Exhibition, he found the kind of dreary old fashioned offices where the museum staff went about their daily work. The corridor was lined with old grey coloured metal filing cabinets, which seemed to date back to the fifties and bookshelves filled with dusty superannuated volumes of reference works and bound scientific papers.
He ventured down the corridor glancing into an offices where he saw two or three grey haired, bespectacled, women. It was almost a caricature of a museum’s offices, there was little apparent activity, a nice place to hide for the bored academic waiting for retirement.
He then spied a much younger woman, he knocked gently on the door and entered as she looked up from her desk in surprise.
‘I wonder if somebody can help me?’
‘Yes,’ she replied with an air of bored indifference as she looked at the intruder.
‘Well I’d like to speak to an anthropologist.’
‘Yes,’ she said a little taken by the question.
‘Are you one?’
‘Yes,’ she replied now sitting upright and looking authoritative.
‘Well are you specialised in physical anthropology.’
Fitznorman sighed and held out his hand, ‘My name is Scott Fitznorman.’
‘How can I help you then,’ she said inspecting his hand for a moment before shaking it limply.
‘I have something that might be interesting.’
He unwrapped the skull cap and placed it on her desk.
‘What do you think it is?’
She carefully took the skull cap, removed her glasses and placed them on the desk, then slowly turned the fragment between her two slim hands in a careful professional manner. She then opened the top left hand drawer of the desk and took out a large magnifying glass, then closely examined the surface of the bone.
‘May I ask you where you found this?’
‘Yes, but unfortunately I will not reply for the moment.’
‘I see,’ she said dryly continuing her examination.
After a long moment Fitznorman asked, ‘What do you think.’
‘Well I’ll need another opinion, but I can say it’s very strange indeed.’
There was a silence.
‘It’s not that old, maybe a few hundred years or more, it’s difficult to be precise without tests. But it doesn’t appear to be a specimen of Homo sapiens and it’s not one of the great apes.’
She closely scrutinised the sutures, where the segments of the skull cap bones were joined together, with the magnifying glass.
‘It’s very very strange….’
She stood up, ‘I’m Carol Lundy, my father is the Professor Henri Lundy.’
‘Lundy?’ Fitznorman said taken back, ‘are you related to Kate Lundy at the Musée Guimet?’
‘She’s a cousin, do you know her?’
‘Very well, she’s a very good friend of mine,’ Fitznorman said wondering why Kate had never mentioned her family connections, maybe she had, there were a lot of academics in her large family, in any case it had never registered. Prehistory and bones were not usually his thing.
He had of course heard of Professor Henri Lundy, a palaeoanthropologist, one of those lesser known public figure, who was from time to time called upon for television news commentaries on fossil finds in Africa, and science programmes on human evolution. Lundy was in fact the very respected director of the Musée de l’Homme, a renowned palaeoanthropologist, and who had been responsible for directing work on many prehistoric sites in France, and leading expeditions to Africa and the Middle East. Fitznorman vaguely remembered having read in the past one of his popular works aimed at a broad public and found in the better bookshops.
‘It’s a pleasure to meet you.’
This time Carol Lundy smiled looking much more friendly and less bookish.
‘Well can you tell me what you think?’
‘Not exactly because this does not correspond to anything that I know, that is to say of this age. At a glance there is some strange resemblance to Homo erectus, or Archaic Homo sapiens, but that’s impossible.’
Fitznorman felt a peculiar surge of emotion, he knew he had found something that was unique. What it was remained to be seen.
‘I very sorry I didn’t catch your name?’ she asked now a little embarrassed.
‘Well Monsieur Fitznorman, could you leave this with me?’
‘No,’ he said leaving no room for doubt.
‘I see, the problem is that my father is not here today. He’s in Spain, at Atapuerca, near Burgos. Could you possibly come back on Thursday?’
‘Yes I think I can do that.’
‘Do you have a card?’
Fitznorman gave her a card with his name from the Gallery adding stiffly, ‘Like Kate I’m a specialist in Asian art.’
‘Okay, let me call you on the phone then.’
The next morning Carol Lundy called Fitznorman to confirm the meeting for the following Thursday morning, asking him to remember to bring along the skull cap. Fitznorman had not stopped thinking about it since he had left the museum. He had the instinctive feeling of a collector that he had discovered something exceptional and could not get the idea out of his mind of quickly returning to the site to gather more information. How he could do that without attracting attention was another matter.
He arrived at the museum as agreed and went directly to the third floor where he found Carol Lundy speaking on the phone. She made him a sign to enter and take a seat. He looked at her desk, which was not unlike that of any office desk, papers, letters, reports and files. The only exception being what appeared to be a resin cast of a primitive skull that acted like a paper weight in a plastic filing tray.
On the shelves behind her were books intermingled with various stone hand axes and what looked like a human tibia. The walls were hung with photos that appeared to be of various archaeological expeditions.
After a few moments she replaced the phone, ‘Hello, so nice of you to come. Let’s go to my father’s office.’
They took the lift to the fifth floor and then a corridor that led to Professor Lundy’s office. It was in quite another style in comparison to the rest of the museum’s offices, it was broad, the full width of the building that lay parallel to the Seine, a panoramic window looking out at the river and the Eiffel tower, without doubt the one of the finest views of all Paris with the Esplanade of the Trocadero and its fountains and gardens directly below. The walls were lined with stylish bookcases in dark polished wood. The furniture was of the Louis Philippe period, to one end was a splendid bureau and to the other a large table surrounded by comfortable chairs. In the middle facing the view were a set of four leather armchairs and a low table.
Lundy was sitting at his desk as they entered. He promptly stood up, smiled, and beckoned them in, pointing to the armchairs. He was a man in his early sixties of medium height and silver grey hair.
‘Do come in, how are you my dear,’ he said kissing his daughter lightly on the cheek and then turning to Fitznorman. ‘Mr Fitznorman, I know your gallery, I’ve passed it many times, a splendid collection. Please sit down.’
They settled down in the armchairs.
He asked his secretary to bring in three coffees whilst they made small talk.
‘So Mr Fitznorman, Carol tells me that you have something unusual?’
‘Well I’m not the expert,’ Fitznorman said smiling. He took out the skull cap, unwrapped it and handed it to Lundy.
He took it and handled it with great respect, turning it carefully in all directions.
‘An extraordinary calvarium, quite extraordinary,” he said placing it with great care and attention on the table.
‘Yes, a calvarium, that’s a skull without the bones of the face or lower jaw. A calotte is just the top of the skull. It’s quite astonishing, where did you find it?’
‘I’m really sorry Professor, I cannot disclose its origin for the moment. Can you tell me what your impression is?’
‘It’s really quite extraordinary, I mean the state of preservation, I can sincerely tell you I’m a little staggered. There is little doubt, from a simple visual inspection, this calvarium is from a member of the species Homo erectus, or a something between Homo erectus and Archaic Homo sapiens, but what is most extraordinary is its condition, I mean it’s not in the least fossilised.’
‘No, it’s from a member of a species that disappeared from the face of the earth almost one hundred or more thousand years ago and it’s not fossilised. Perhaps just a patina of calcium carbonate, it looks as though it’s no more than a couple or so thousand years old…,’ he paused, then added softly, ‘which is quite absurd.’
‘How can that be?’
‘Normally fossilisation takes several thousand of years, but I suppose it could have been preserved under some very unusual conditions, but I wonder….’
‘Conditions such as...?’
‘I honestly don’t know,’ he paused, ‘if I knew the site?’
‘As I said I really can’t divulge that for the moment.’
‘Yes, Carol mentioned that,’ he hesitated then continued, ‘Look Mr Fitznorman, if you are concerned about confidentiality we can arrange that, you are no doubt familiar with archaeological and prehistoric sites, and I, as the director of Musée de l’Homme, a venerable state institution, can sign a confidentiality agreement with you.’ He said smiling as he gently explained the obligations of his scientific and professional discretion to Fitznorman.
Fitznorman knew only too well the kind of jealousy and secrecy that surrounded major finds. He also knew of the professional rivalry that reigned between scientists. Lundy looked a kind and sincere, and Fitznorman had admired the style of his books leading the reader through the scientific complexities of anthropology and its related disciplines.
‘Fine, let us sign a document,’ Fitznorman said taking a decision, ‘I’ll get my lawyer to look at a model if you have one available and then we can get down to serious discussions.’
Lundy’s secretary was instructed to mail a draft to Fitznorman and his lawyer that morning and he agreed to meet Lundy the next day for lunch.
Back in his office Fitznorman realised that the presence of a renowned scientist would be essential if tests were to be carried out and if he was to return to the site for more investigations.
Early the next morning he called his agent in Singapore, pretexting the need for a meeting on the shipping arrangement and customs formalities for the first consignment of Martabans, earthen ware jars and other Chinese items, which were soon to be shipped from Kwok’s Kuching godown, announcing that he would arrive the following week to check on the progress of work at Kuching.
Lunch was in a Chinese restaurant on rue de Longchamp, ten minutes by foot from the museum. It was in a district of the 16th arrondissement, one of the most exclusive and expensive residential areas of Paris, and also the home to a number of foreign embassies. That morning his lawyer had approved the ‘Confidentiality Agreement’ with a couple of minor modifications. It stated that the skull cap was the property of Scott Fitznorman and was on loan to the Musée de l’Homme for a period of two months for scientific tests, notably carbon dating and a search for DNA, all rights for publication would shared by the two parties subject to approbation by Scott Fitznorman, with a secrecy clause forbidding the release of any information relating to the skull cap and the site of its discovery without his prior written approval.
The restaurant was discrete, laid out with booths and lacquered screens, which hid its patrons from prying eyes, as many well-known politicians and celebrities lunched or dined there.
Without more ado they signed the papers between bowls of rice and chopsticks and exchanged copies.
‘A mere formality Scott, may I can call you Scott?’
‘You know we scientists like informality.’
Fitznorman knew that first names would be a one way arrangement, the Professor would always be addressed as Professor – it was okay by him.
‘Have you thought any more about our specimen?’
‘A great deal, it’s a real puzzle and only tests will tell what its connections and history are, it will take time.’
They paused whilst the waiter filled their glasses.
‘So let us drink to our association,’ Lundy said lifting his glass.
It was evident to Fitznorman that Lundy’s interest was very great, after all he figured a scientist of his standing did not go overboard after a simple glance at a piece of bone unless there was some real and deep interest.
‘Well Scott, where did you find it?’ Lundy asked as he fiddled a little impatiently with his chopsticks.
Fitznorman paused, in spite of the agreement that he had just signed, he knew that once he divulged the location of the site he was committed and there was no turning back. Doubts still lingered, he knew only too well the perfidy that existed when interests went beyond those of simple individuals, after all the agreement was effectively with a French institution. The only way forward was to place his trust in the agreement he had just signed and above all Lundy.
‘Sarawak, on the border between Malaysia and Indonesia.’
Lundy’s mouth fell open, one or two grains of rice fell onto his napkin, he turned and looked at his daughter who was lost for words.
‘In a cave that I discovered quite by accident.’
Lundy gulped down a glass of rosé. His eyes watered and it took him a few moments to recover his faculty of speech.
‘Java Man, well I’ll be dammed!’
‘But Papa, how is that possible?’ asked Carol.
‘Are you sure Professor about your identification?’
‘As sure as I will ever be Scott. It is of the Homo erectus species, what we could call a gracile type, that is to say one of the most evolved in the line. That is unless it’s an extraordinarily elaborate hoax.’
‘I can be sure that it is not Professor.’
‘You know contrary to popular belief it is not often that bones are found in caves, old bones that is. Old fossils are more often found under the ground around us.’
‘What about the press?’
‘We have to respect the greatest secrecy, if news of this leaked out it would cause all kinds of problems for us in our narrow world of palaeoanthropology, and especially with the media…not to speak of local political problems. Any news concerning the origins of man has become sensational press over the last few years.’
They returned to the museum and Fitznorman formally handed over the skull cap to Lundy against an official receipt from the museum. Lundy would personally supervise, in the utmost confidentiality, all tests that were to be carried out. It would take them at least two weeks even with top priority in the national laboratories of the CNRS, at the Institute of Physico-Chemical Biology in the 5th District of Paris, on the opposite bank of the Seine, a couple of kilometres to the east.
A GOOD FRIEND IN JAKARTA
Fitznorman, whilst impatiently awaiting the results of the scientific analysis, turned his attention to other aspects of his find. One of the most pressing points was to determine with precision the geographical location of the cave. It was near the border between Malaysian Sarawak and Indonesian Kalimantan, very near the border, in fact it was not clear whether the cave was in Indonesia or Malaysia, even worse it could straddle the border.
The only way he could be sure was to locate the exact point with a GPS fix, then consult maps showing the exact border location between the two countries. But try as he may he could not find any precise data on the border line, not to speak of detailed maps, he was not even sure whether the treaties between the two countries defined the border with any precision.
Winston Marshall had informed him that the borders dated back to treaties made in the nineteenth century between the British and Dutch colonial administrations, when methods were summary and it was not even physically possible to mark the border given the almost impenetrable mountainous jungle coverer terrain and the dangers it presented.
For decades, the government of Malaysia had tried to control access to Sarawak’s geographical information. As a result, all detailed maps were classified, and the law made surveying without a permit a jailable offence. However with satellite imagery and the use of handheld GPS units it was possible to position longhouse, specific sites and rivers, and draw-up detailed maps.
Using GPS coordinates presented no problem nor did obtaining satellite imagery, but interpreting it with the precision needed was outside of his skills. After careful consideration he decided to contact an old and reliable friend in Jakarta, a rich collector of antique Chinese porcelain, Aris Adhianto, an industrialist who had built-up over thirty years an empire and a vast fortune in the Indonesian forestry industries, with logging, saw mills, tree plantations and paper pulp mills. Aris had often talked to Fitznorman about one of his companies, his pride, a highly specialised firm called PT Indosatmap, which had been originally set up to map the extensive forestry concessions operated by his group of companies using satellite imagery.
PT Indosatmap had extended its business to a broad range of other activities that included environmental and conservation projects, infrastructure development for town and road planning, tracking forest fires, and the Ministry of Defence. Over a decade and a half Aris’s company had become the Indonesian leader in cartography, using sophisticated computer techniques and satellite links with a staff of young highly trained engineers and specialists.
Precision mapping of his forestry concessions had been instrumental in the decisions that had accelerated his climb to wealth, building an empire by the careful selection of government forestry concessions, which had enabled him to negotiate logging rights for those richest in valuable timber and having the best terrain for access and exploitation.
Aris Adhianto was an astute Indonesian-Chinese who had built close relations with successive government ministers under the Suharto regime, its successors and permanent government departments, especially the officials of the Ministry of Forestry and its many sub-divisions, cultivating key persons to advance the interests of his business empire with the kind of favours appreciated in Asia.
Aris was not only a valued client, but also a very old friend, and under the pretext of organising a new expedition to isolated longhouses in his hunt for heirlooms, Fitznorman asked him to supply detailed satellite maps of the border areas near Batang Ai, together with high definition satellite photographs, which he hoped would help him to locate the precise point where the cave had been found.
Precision would nevertheless be limited since he lacked an on-site GPS reading. With a handheld GPS device the entrance to the cave could be fixed to within a couple of metres. Then he would have to figure out a means of mapping the tunnels, since the GPS transmitter would not work inside the cave, which would need an experienced caver or potholer to map the tunnels and galleries.
The position of the border was a major question, there were three different possibilities, the first was that the cave and the gallery where he made the find lay on the Malaysian side of the border, the second was they were both on the Indonesian side, and the third only the gallery lay on the Indonesia side whilst the entrance lay on the Malaysian side. The last possibility would seriously complicate any research work.
In the past a scientific expedition would have been relatively easy to organise from abroad, when the bureaucratic requirements were much simpler. In the case of Malaysia it had become necessary to find a local partner who would act as the local counterpart and who would submit official applications to conduct research activities in the country. The National Economic Planning Unit would then vet the application for approval. Then work permits would have to be applied for, through the Immigration Department, a long process that could take months to complete with risk that the government, sensing the importance of the discovery, could decide, for reasons of national preference, to exclude all foreign intervention, to the detriment of scientific research, which was however, perfectly normal for a sovereign nation.
A few days later Fitznorman received a file containing maps and photos of the border area near Batang Ai. The images did not help because of the dense forest cover, though the river was visible. The maps were better and by selecting the coordinates that he figured were near to the site he asked Aris to send high definition satellite photos by express courier.
Several days passed before the photos were delivered which enabled him to pin point the spot with an accuracy of approximately fifty metres. However, was difficult to say with certainty if the entrance to the cave was on Malaysian territory since the precise border line was virtual and consequently open to dispute. The gallery was an even more open question, which confirmed that only an on the spot survey could resolve the problem.
The same day Professor Lundy called to say that he had received preliminary data from the CNRS, asking Fitznorman to come over to the museum as quickly as possible.
‘We have the results and they are very confusing,’ Lundy announced without formality as Fitznorman entered his office.
‘We are running check tests in another laboratory, it will take another two or three days. But if the results we have here are exact, then they are truly astounding…sensational!’
Professor Lundy was an enthusiastic and forward going individual, but he weighed his words when his scientific opinion was being exercised.
‘The preliminary radiocarbon dating tests indicate the calvarium is just under three thousand years old.’
Fitznorman felt a wave of disappointment, it had been too exciting to be true. A three thousand year old skull, be it human or animal, was of little interest except to local archaeologists. Lundy noted his reaction.
‘I am not finished! We have also extracted samples of DNA,’ he made a long and serious pause, then with dramatic effect he added, ‘The skull belongs neither to an animal,’ he paused again weighing his words, ‘nor Homo sapiens!’
‘What is it then?’
‘We don’t have a comparable DNA, I have to say that we suspect that this confirms my initial idea that it’s possibly a specimen of Homo erectus.’
‘But that’s impossible,’ blurted Fitznorman.
‘I agree with you, but those are the facts as we have them today, truly sensational.’
‘There must be an explanation.’
‘There surely is. I don’t think it means hairy ancestors running around the jungle, but it is possibly a vestige population had survived until historic times. It will mean that many of us have to revise our finely thought out theories.’
‘What is our next move then?’
‘Go to the site at once.’
‘Agreed, what do you think, is Sunday to soon?’
‘No, it’s fine, Carol will join us if you agree.’
‘Fine, I will make bookings to Singapore for Sunday, three seats, first class on Air France, arriving early Monday afternoon local time.’
‘Good, for the moment I have kept this all strictly confidential. The labs have only received samples prepared by Carol. The DNA of a Homo erectus is unknown to science, so that results are not significant to the lab staff.’
The islands of Indonesia have been inhabited by man and his ancestors for almost two million years according to the fossil evidence found over the last century. When precisely man arrived is part of a long scientific investigation, which will probably never be determined with any certitude.
The islands of Sumatra, Java and Borneo lie on the Sunda Shelf, which is around two hundred metres beneath the surface of the sea at its deepest point. As sea levels rose and fell over the last few million years, climates changed and all, or part of, the Sunda Shelf became dry land, allowing animals and later man to move from the South East Asian mainland onto the emerged land mass known to geologists as Sundaland.
Man’s ancestor, Homo erectus, followed the same route to the region that is now Java, where they established their home under the shadows of the volcanic chain that runs along the southern edge of the present day archipelago. Dense jungles covered a fertile land renewed by volcanic ash that was scattered across the region by the frequent and often violent eruptions from the Ring of Fire.
Erectus colonised river banks on the edge of the dense jungle, here rivers and their banks formed paths that allowed him to move freely over his territory, which supplied his food – mainly fruit and roots, fish and small animals, as well as birds and insects. He was an omnivore, competing with the other large animals such as the orangutan for fruit and nuts.
As the climate changed again, the sea level rose and covered the coastal regions, leaving men and animals stranded on islands, where they continued to evolve in isolated communities, cut off from the other members of their species by the sea.
Throughout this vast period of time the tropical forests of Indonesia remained remarkably stable, in what is called ‘a climax equilibrium’, where plants and creatures continued their never ending cycle of life and death in their forest home.
Over the last two million years, whenever the sea fell and land bridges emerged, new populations arrived, including new forms of men who competed with the existing inhabitants.
These early human populations were however very, very, small compared with those in recent historic times. Family groups of twenty to thirty persons lived in territories of not more than one hundred square kilometres, leading the life of hunter-gatherers, constantly on the move in search of food, not unlike the nomadic Punans of Borneo who still pursue their age old nomadic existence.
At present the island of Java covers a surface of 125,000 square kilometres with a large part of the island uninhabitable due to the chain of high volcanic mountains that runs along its southern edge from east to west. In distant prehistoric times, the total population of early men would not have been more than a mere 25,000 souls, whilst Borneo, without volcanic activity and its 740,000 square kilometres, could have been the home to proportionally more.
In a more recent times, it is thought that Marco Polo may have been the first European to set foot in Indonesia. He is said to have visited North Sumatra and Java in 1292, which at that time were part of a Hindu kingdom ruled by a powerful Raja. However, many of the islands of Indonesia, including Borneo, were surrounded by belts of dense and impenetrable mangrove swamps and wet forests, fifty, one hundred or more kilometres inland. Apart from towns and settlements on the mouths of some of the larger rivers that drained the interior, the heart of the island was inaccessible.
As a consequence, with the exception of Java and parts of Sumatra, which offered more accessible coast lines, much of the Raja’s kingdom consisted of coastal towns. Nevertheless the Hindu kingdom’s rulers managed to establish control in the region of Kutai, on the Eastern part of Borneo, a region that had been visited for centuries by Chinese and Persian traders.
After Marco Polo, the Portuguese and Spanish arrived, followed by the British and Dutch. The Dutch established their East India Company in Indonesia in 1662, and later proclaimed their sovereignty with Indonesia becoming a colonial possession of the Dutch crown.
At the end of the eighteenth century the population of Java was three-and-a-half million. Today, just two hundred years later, the island reached more than one hundred and forty million, over forty times more. If we compared it to the days of Home erectus, the population had been multiplied several thousand times.
As to Borneo, the story has been very different with a present day population of around six million, that is twelve persons per square kilometre, in prehistoric times the population was as thinly spread as that of the orangutans of today, vast regions of the interior were totally unknown to man until very recent times, never explored. The jungle covered mountains form a crescent of over one thousand kilometres long, the easterly most point of which commences in the north with the 4,101 metres high Mount Kinabulu, Gunung Longnawan, 2,988 metres high lying in the centre, and at the westerly extremity is the 1,701 metres high Mount Niyut. This chain of mountains formed a natural barrier separating Sarawak and Sabah, two states of the Malaysian Federation, from the Indonesian Provinces of Kalimantan.
The southern watershed of the mountains was drained by the powerful River Mahakam and River Kapuas, whose sources remained unexplored by outsiders until the twentieth century. They were only known to those who inhabited the distant interior, that is small isolated tribes dwelling on the river banks of the dark forests.
Its dense primary forests were also inhabited by wild animals, orangutans, tigers, wild buffalo, elephants and even rhinoceros. In these conditions it was just possible that primitive human beings such as Homo erectus could have survived until recent times. They and their like had survived their wanderings over hundreds of thousands of years, crossing mountain ranges, deserts and continents to arrive in Sundaland, where they lived in the jungle with all its dangers for over one and a half million years.
When the land bridge that joined Borneo to the continent disappeared under the rising sea, Homo erectus was separated from the road that had led them out of Africa and all contact with later waves of more evolved men, that is until the seas withdrew once again, and Homo sapiens arrived. Many more millennium followed before others arrived, bringing with them new inventions, boats and open sea navigation.
Homo erectus lived in isolation, his only very distant biological relatives present were the orangutans, that was until the arrival of Homo sapiens, who drove him deep into the forest, perhaps even hunting their cousins and eating them, forcing them to retreat to relative safety, deeper and deeper into the mountainous jungles.
PALAEOANTHROPOLOGY IN BRNO
For those who were nostalgic for the Cold War era a few souvenirs lingered on at the International Hotel in the city of Brno, the capital of Moravia, in the Czech Republic, which was not unlike many other hotels in the other former East Block countries.
Fitznorman had been attending an Antiquities Fair in Vienna after which he made a detour to Brno. He had two objects in mind, firstly, after learning that an excellent example of an early eighteenth Biblica Hebraica was available at a specialist bookseller in Brno, he had emailed a purchase option subject to viewing the antique bible on his visit. Secondly was a visit Zybnek Jaros, the director of the Department of Paeloarchaeology at the Czech National Museum.
Jaros was a specialist in deep time archaeology, known for his work in Palaeolithic archaeology, excavations at Palaeolithic settlements in karstic areas, interpreting topographic, stratigraphic and chronological data. He had been invited to join the team being put together for the expedition – organised by the Department of Human Origins in Paris, for the exploration of the limestone caves in the Lanjak area of West Kalimantan, where Fitznorman had discovered the calvarium.
Some years earlier, Jaros had worked in France under Pierre Rossard, head of research at the Department of Human Origins, and they had continued to cooperate for excavation work on a number of Neolithic and late Palaeolithic sites. His experience had been developed in the sandstone regions of Moravia, where he was still exploring and excavating the numerous ancient rock shelters that had been inhabited by man. He would form part of the team put together by Rossard that included specialists in geology, sedimentology, physical anthropology, radiometric dating, archaeology and other specialised fields of research.
Brno was just a two hour drive from Vienna and his visit stemmed from his curiosity to learn why Pierre Rossard had engaged Jaros, a Czech, for the expedition.
Pierre had explained that as the conditions of the Kalimantan site were very unusual, closer to that of a Neolithic site than a very ancient habitat, the Czech’s knowledge and experience of rock shelters and stone tools would be invaluable in trying to determine the origin of borneensis, as they now called the owner of the calvarium, and how he had lived.
At the hotel reception there was the mandatory passport check, a reflex from the past. The reception was overstaffed, as were the dining rooms and bars compared to the regretful standards now prevalent in Western countries. Glancing around the lobby it was woefully evident to Fitznorman that it had been designed by one of the 1980 Czechoslovak style modern architects, however he remarked and made a mental note of the poster for one of the ubiquitous casinos now found in Eastern Europe, with a photo of a group of beckoning well formed blonde spectators at the Blackjack tables, an explicit indication that gambling was not the only attraction.
His room was small and only just comfortable, much too spartan to his taste, it reminded him of the kind of tourist or commercial travellers’ hotel rooms common in Scandinavian countries.
He left the hotel after a late breakfast, taking the rear exit which led to the town centre, descended a flight of marble stairs and crossed the square. On the roof of a nearby building a faded green sign announced ‘Sputnik’ in contrast with a garish MacDonald’s hoarding. The town had potential, but it was not yet ready for the tourist trade and would probably not be for a long time. Many of the buildings, which were in the course of being renovated, showed the impact of bullets or shells on their facades that dated from WWII. Repairs had evidently been put off for some future moveable date.
The bookshop was in an arcade that had been indicated to him on a map the owners had mailed him. He found it without too much difficulty and introduced himself to an intellectual looking blonde engrossed in a card index.
‘My name is Fitznorman, we exchanged mails concerning a book I would like to buy.’
‘Mr Fitznorman? Ah yes, let me see now...if I remember rightly it is a Biblica Hebraica’
‘Quite a nice example. Let me show it to you.’
Fitznorman inspected the bible, the binding was fine and the general condition excellent. It had been printed in 1723.
Just the thing for Abe Avner. The text was black and printed in Hebrew filling the centre area of the pages, whilst explanations in Latin were printed in red on both left and right sides and on the bottom of the pages. Avner would appreciate the present Fitznorman said to himself, though it was not a Jewish Bible, it was used by Christians for a better understanding of the Holy Book.
‘Excellent, you can accept my credit cards?’
‘No problem Mr Fitznorman,’ the blonde said with a serious smile.
He returned to the hotel and called Jaros at his office to inform him that he had arrived and fix a time for their meeting.
The Brno branch of the Institute of Science and Culture was situated in a government building that housed various other organisations, including offices of the National Museum. It was situated on the ninth floor – budgets for science had virtually evaporated after the Communist period and the Institute was struggling to make ends meet.
It was an old fashioned ‘modern’ high rise building, the façade already in a dilapidated state, due without doubt to the poor quality of the materials used in those times. Fitznorman took the aluminium lift, in the same style, joined by a couple of over made-up secretaries loaded with sandwiches from in-house canteen.
Previously, several hundred persons worked in the state owned building, but since the changes many state controlled institutions had undergone a serious diet of down-sizing, which had resulted in a reduction of about fifty percent of the personnel, those remaining were very soon due for some more of the same medicine according to Jaros.
‘Did you have a good trip?’
‘Yes, thanks everything was fine, perfect.’
‘As its lunch time I suggest we eat first then we’ll visit the Mendel Museum at the Saint Thomas Abbey, that’s where Gregor Mendel the father of genetics worked.’
‘Pierre’s told me all about you.’
‘Nothing bad I hope?’
‘No, but he told me a visit to the Mendel Museum would be good for you’re education,’ Jaros replied with a friendly laugh. ‘I’ve reserved a table at a typical Moravian restaurant nearby. It’s very good and convenient.’
They started with a good whole bodied local white wine and Jaros ordered hlavní chod and a side dish, příloha, for them both.
After they had tasted the wine Fitznorman opened the subject.
‘Well is everything ready for Kalimantan?’
‘Everything is fine, I’ve put together a lot of reference material and discussed all the details with Pierre.’
‘I’d like to insist on the extreme confidentiality of our work, followed by our safety, things are getting hot down there at the moment, a lot of rioting and general unrest.’
‘That’s no problem to me, I’ve also been doing work at a site near Tbilisi in Georgia and there’s been a lot of trouble over there with the Russians!’
‘I’ll show you the photos we took in Georgia?’
After lunch the made their back to Jaros’s offices where his smiling secretary brought them coffee. She wore a very short skirt, Fitznorman noting that her legs were not too bad, whilst thinking, and without being unkind, she was past the very short skirt age for a secretary in a staid government institute.
Fitznorman noted that Jaros was also a keen amateur pilot and owned a ULM, a luxury for a Czech, which could be a useful skill during the weeks ahead, listening with attention whilst Jaros showed him a site for flyers with satellite images of the nearby region and a local forecast with the weekend’s weather conditions for amateur flyers.
After a quick check at his mail, Jaros announced they could leave for the Mendel Museum, which was situated in an Augustinian Abbey where Gregor Johann Mendel was a friar, an abbot and a scientist.
Today, Gregor Mendel is recognised as the founder of the modern science of genetics. Born in 1822, in Silesia, Mendel entered the Faculty of Philosophy, the Department of Natural History and Agriculture, which was headed by Johann Karl Nestler, who carried out research into the hereditary traits of plants and animals, more especially sheep.
Mendel presented his paper, Experiments on Plant Hybridization, at the Natural History Society of Brno in Moravia in 1865, which was ignored by the scientific community. It was then published in 1866 in a scientific review, but had little impact, and was forgotten for decades.
Today, his research is considered a seminal work.
Mendel began his studies on heredity using mice, but his bishop did not like one of his friars studying animal sex, so he turned his attention to plants. However, few understood his work, until 1900, when his experimental results were replicated, with genetic lineage and Mendelian heredity was established as a biological process.
RETURN TO BATANG AI
Fitznorman called Aris Adhianto, informing him of his imminent arrival in Singapore and asked for his urgent help on a matter that he could not discuss over the phone. Aris accepted without question, he was an Indonesian, to be precise an ethnic Chinese, whose ingrained concept of mutual assistance had helped him and his community to survive the waves of violence and discrimination that swept over them each time their country was confronted with a crisis.
Fitznorman briefly informed him he needed equipment for precision mapping using highly specialised GPS techniques for his expedition. Aris asked no further questions and proposed meeting him in Singapore at the Mandarin Hotel on Orchard Road, where they could discuss the details before Fitznorman left for Kuching.
Aris booked two rooms at the Mandarin, one for the Professor and the other for Carol. Fitznorman and Kate would stay in the immense presidential suite Aris regularly used in the hotel.
A rich industrialist, Aris lavishly spent his money on creature comforts, enjoying service and good food. He had worked hard over many difficult years to build his business empire, twenty hour days were not unusual, building relations, creating bonds with businessmen, government officials, politicians, no person was too small to ignore. He distributed envelopes for services rendered, paid for children’s schooling, holidays for key contacts, medical care and the many other things necessary to facilitate the growth of his business empire in Indonesia.
What Aris valued most after his business was a collection of rare Chinese ceramics and Asian art, a sign not only of success – that was evident – but a manifestation of his culture, which like for many self-made men had been acquired later in life, when he could relax and enjoy the fruits of his long years of hard work.
He had become a well-known art collector, but Scott Fitznorman had known him when they were both much younger. He had introduced Aris to the esoteric world of antique Chinese ceramics, examples of which had abounded at that time before becoming precious collectors items.
Together they had travelled together to distant villages, buying heirlooms from tribal peoples in Borneo and Sumatra. Their friendship was founded not only on their common passion for art, but also a deep bond of mutual understanding, the serious side of work was mostly avoided, although business was often present when Aris invited him to join his overseas business friends and acquaintances for long dinners and carousing in the restaurants and nightclubs of Asia. Managing his business empire left him with little time that could be exclusively consecrated to pleasure.
‘So what is all the excitement,’ said Aris with one of his inscrutable grins, blinking through his gold rimmed glasses as he did when presented with an unusual situation.
Lundy and his daughter had checked in and followed the hotel’s executive hostess to their rooms, leaving Fitznorman alone with Aris in the hotel lobby. Kate had taken off for the hotel’s shopping arcade leaving the two men with the VIP guest manager, who accompanied them to the express lift and the twenty eighth floor.
‘Well it’s something quite extraordinary and very confidential,’ said Fitznorman in a low voice and making a discrete sign in the direction of the manager who stood politely to one side.
In the suite they waited while the manager went about his task, an act of seeing that all was well. Aris blinked and smiled patiently, and Fitznorman looked out at the view over the city through the vast panoramic windows.
They then settled themselves into the plush armchairs in the main reception room of the suite, where a television was on and the leader of a religious group with almost thirty million followers, compared Indonesia to the ocean liner Titanic, sinking under the weight of the turmoil and debt crisis, he told viewers that Indonesia’s elite was ‘still drinking, playing cards and gambling while the ship went down.’
The anchor man announced that four student protesters had been shot dead at Jakarta’s prestigious Trisakti University. In the last twenty-four hours the killings by security forces had sparked savage riots and an anti-Chinese pogrom that was turning the centre of Jakarta into a war zone.
Fitznorman turned his attention away from the TV and spoke to Aris, ‘Have you heard of Java man?’
Aris looked uncomprehendingly for a moment.
‘You know the fossils.’
‘Oh! You mean the fossils – at Solo?’
‘Of course, we went there together once, you remember?’
‘Yeah, well a similar skull has been found in Sarawak.’
‘Found by who?’ Aris said with a vague though polite interest.
Aris sat up and looked at him as if he was pulling his leg.
‘Okay, it’s a fossil then, what about it?’
‘It’s an incredible discovery.’
Fitznorman quickly explained the significance to the scientific world of such a discovery and the impact it would have on the news media.
‘The most puzzling point is that it does not appear to be a fossil. That’s why Professor Lundy is here, he’s one of the world’s leading palaeoanthropologist.’
‘Oh! I thought he was from the ceramics museum, what’s it called?’ Aris tittered.
‘No, I’m serious,’ said Fitznorman ignoring his question.
‘Sorry, start from the beginning, tell me your story.’
Fitznorman described the whole sequence of events to him and the problems as they had appeared. He told him it was necessary to collect more evidence to determine the exact nature of the creature. Lundy would be the laughing stock of the scientific world if it turned out to be some kind of rare great ape, or some other unknown animal.
‘I see, the Professor wouldn’t be here if it was something ordinary,’ Aris conceded.
‘Okay, so how can I help?’
‘Well we need high precision GPS equipment to pinpoint the exact location on the map relative to the international border between Sarawak and Kalimantan.’
‘That’s done, everything is ready.’
‘Good, we also need a speleologist, to help us explore and map the cave.’
‘Okay, that’ll take a couple days, but I can arrange that. The only thing is how we can do it and remain discrete?’
‘We’ll have to think about that.’
‘You know if what you say is true, you will have to inform the authorities sooner or later. I can help you in Indonesia, but you know the Malaysians are very touchy.’
‘Yes, you’re right. But first we have to get some facts straight before we go talking to authorities, or we’ll be shut out in the blink of an eye. Once the politicians get involved it could take years’
‘Sure, you could even create a diplomatic crisis and get thrown out of the country – or land up in jail.’
‘Let’s discuss it with Lundy, I suggest we have dinner in the suite...what do you think?’ Fitznorman said nodding to the dinning room through a door behind, there was a table that could seat at least ten people.
‘Okay, I’ll call Lundy.’
‘She’s quite nice,’ said Aris with a broad grin, ‘looks innocent.’
Fitznorman gave him a look as if to say be serious.
‘Oh, one other thing, do you mind if I come with you…I mean to Sarawak?’
‘Of course, you can help us with the translations.’
‘Good I’ll call our agent in Kuching to lay on the transport. I’ll tell him you’re studying the Ibans,’ he said laughing.
An excellent Chinese dinner was served in the suite accompanied by an Australian Chablis and a Cabernet chosen by Aris from the wine list. He knew his wines even though he wasn’t a connoisseur, simply partaking in a modest glass of each, but encouraging the others to help themselves and enjoy the wine.
Kate and Carol changed news, cousins, they had plenty to talk about.
Lundy appeared a little jet lagged, even first class was not enough to overcome the fatigue of the long flight, though it had guaranteed fatigue in comfort. At first he was a little subdued, but after a glass or two of wine he perked up and launched into an enthusiastic summary of the history of Homo erectus and Java Man before coming back to the borneensis.
‘The problem is that there is so much that we don’t know, every new find reminds us of that. At this point our mystery man is yet another problem, because we are not even sure who, or what he is, we need to examine the cave, and ground in which the skull cap was buried, there are probably more bones and clues waiting to be discovered.’
‘Tell me a little about your work professor, palaeo...sorry, normally it’s not in my line of business’, Aris said making a funny kind of sniffing noise, which may have been an embarrassed giggle.
‘What is Palaeoanthropology?’ he said taking on a professorial air. ‘It’s the science of studying our ancestors, to be precise prehistoric ancestors.’
‘Palaeoarchaeology, that’s the science that studies the artefacts made by prehistoric man,’ he paused looking at Aris for a reaction. ‘These artefacts are not the same as those we know in historic times, like in Egypt where there are monuments, you know temples like Borobudur, or pyramids,’ he smiled a little condescendingly as Aris looked at him imperturbable, ‘or pottery, like your ceramics.’
‘I see,’ said Aris, getting a reference point with the mention of Borobudur and ceramics. ‘By the way I remember now, our Indonesian specialist in prehistoric man is Professor Murtopo, I know him, not too well, I met him a couple of times at Archaeological Association meetings, he’s not a specialist in ceramics.’
‘Professor Murtopo is no lightweight in physical anthropology,” said Lundy. “He’s getting on now, a few years older then me, seventy-five, I think. He’s the Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Chief Palaeontologist at Gadjah Mada University in Jakarta.’
‘The best university in Indonesia,’ said Aris proudly as he had studied business there many years before. ‘If I remember rightly the Professor studied in the US.’
‘This is highly confidential and we shouldn’t talk to anyone for the moment.’ Fitznorman quickly interjected.
‘Absolutely,’ said Lundy then going back to his subject. ‘Our ancient prehistoric ancestors left quite a lot of things behind them, if you know where and how to look for them, evidence that requires a serious scientific approach.’
‘You mean stone axes for example?’
‘Ah, I see you have been studying the question.’
‘Not exactly, but I’ve been to Irian Jaya many times, there are many tribes that still live in the Stone Age.’
‘That’s next to Papua New Guinea,’ he said for Lundy’s benefit.
‘Of course, but as you’ve probably seen most of their tools are from wood and other vegetable or animal materials, which is a problem for us in these hot humid climates as they perish very quickly or are lost in the forest. On the other hand the hard non-organic objects have survived the test of time, such as those made of stone. It’s very rare that wooden tools survive, though there are very unusual cases of such objects coming down to us, in Germany for example, a couple of throwing spears turned up, in a mine and were dated to being around 400,000 years old!’
‘That’s pretty old, everything found in Java has been in stone up to now.’
‘Yes, what’s important about stone tools is their so called ‘modes’.
‘Yes, palaeoarchaeologists have classified stone tools into five modes, each of which is comprised of set of tools in an industry that corresponded to a specific level of technological and cultural development, and in a given time period, on a given site. This enables us to determine how industrial technology migrated from its point of origin to another.’
‘That’s a little complicated.’
‘Never mind, what’s interesting is that these modes show how early humans and even relatively recent populations migrated across the planet. Technology advanced very, very, slowly, if we look at Pebble Culture for example...’
‘Yes, this the most basic of the modes, when tools were literally pebbles, or pebbles deliberately broken by very early man to be used as rudimentary tools, which remained virtually unchanged for a million years, as did bifacial tools, another mode, which however progressed in style and according to some specialists was even a primitive art form.’
‘What about Sarawak then?’
‘When we examine your site, Scott, there’s a good chance there won’t be any tools! You may ask why? There’s several explanations, the first and most obvious is that the skull was found in a place that was not the home of its owner, that’s to say his usual dwelling place. Like all humans and their early ancestors, Homo erectus was a social animal, which means they lived in family groups. Our specimen was probably out foraging, or had had an accident, or died and his body abandoned by his clan, there are endless possibilities.’
‘So there must be more of them?’
‘Why haven’t we found any of their remains?’
‘Why haven’t we found any other fossils, for the simple reason we haven’t looked! Nobody had even suspected that such men existed in Borneo! Another problem we will face is the tendency to brush off such discoveries, as happened in the past, when certain scientists and specialists were quick to say that strange newly discovered bones belonged to some poor deformed individual – perhaps it is the case – I don’t know.
‘What I do know is that first this skull cap is almost a perfect twin of Trinil Man in Java and secondly it neither belongs, genetically speaking, to Homo sapiens, nor a known ape...that is those we know at present. It does of course have similarities, just as we have similarities, with the great apes.’
‘So Professor, are we cousins of the orangutans?’
‘Yes, in a manner of speaking, you could say we are very distant cousins. However, we are much closer to the African great apes than to their Asian cousin. And we should not forget that we share 99% of our genes with certain of the great apes.’
‘So this could be an ape, or some kind of a Bigfoot?’
‘Perhaps, I doubt it, in any case it’s not one that we have ever encountered up to this point in time. You should know that there’s a wealth of stories about strange manlike creatures in the forests.’
‘Bigfoot!’ laughed Fitznorman.
‘Well, strange manlike creatures have been regularly reported from this region, since 1855, by travellers and adventurers.’
‘What do you think?’
‘Me? Well it’s necessary to have an open mind, to a certain degree that is. For example there’s the Orang Pendek, which has been described as a powerful bipedal ape-like creature, seen in Sumatra recently by a photographer called Debbie Martyr.’
‘So there’s a photo?’
‘I’m not sure, from what I’ve read it’s supposed to be something like an orangutan. Similar stories abound in the area we are heading to the mountains, between Sarawak and Kalimantan, it has even been observed to break river snails using a rock to eat them.’
‘So it’s an intelligent ape.’
‘In any case it’s supposed to be very fast on its feet.’
‘The significant point is not whether such a creature is linked to Homo erectus, who is very very similar to ourselves, but that unknown animals have remained undetected by men for a very long time, surviving in the deep forest. Which raises the question, is it unreasonable to think that Homo erectus, a very intelligent early human, had survived until historic times?’ said Lundy.
‘The survival of different species in isolated habitats is easily demonstrated,’ Carol added, ‘if for example you take orangutans, there are two types, one in Borneo and the other in Sumatra. These are so similar in appearance and behaviour that only experts can tell them apart. But their DNA variation shows that these types diverged nearly three million years ago.’
‘The orangutan races are similar physically and behaviourally for the simple reason the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo are so alike they select for the same traits. Thus natural selection is stabilizing, rejecting deviations.’
‘I suppose it’s because we have become used to the idea that the first men lived tens, or hundreds of thousand years ago,’ said Fitznorman. ‘There’s plenty of legends on the islands here, reports of small hairy people often seen on the Sunda Islands until Dutch settlers arrived. They could have been a form of archaic human, Homo erectus.’
‘They could have survived for much longer until recent times.’”
‘Yes, they could have, as Aris said, they could have still been living until the Dutch arrived.’
‘In some places the story goes that villagers left gourds of food for them to eat, they were said to be guests, from hell, and they’d eat everything, even the gourds.’
‘Were they cannibals?’
‘Why not, perhaps it was they who were eaten by modern humans,’ said Carol.
‘So maybe we’ll find bones from a cannibal feast.’
‘Well let’s keep to the bones of our man for the moment.’
‘How can we find out then?’
‘As I said the first thing we should look for are other bones, a lower jaw bone, or some facial bones, even a tibia or a femur, that would be wonderful. We should also look for animal bones.’
‘Animal bones? Why?’ asked Aris.
‘This would enable us to identify the kind of environment our friend’s lived in and his habits. Maybe there are some stones, pebbles, that is to say tools.’
‘What about his age Professor.’
‘I take that to mean the age of the fossil? How long ago he died?’
‘That’s the mystery, if it was an ordinary, straight forward, fossil, like those found in Java we could announce another Java Man and then try to date it with more precision. But unfortunately there is something we don’t understand, a mystery. That means we have to look very carefully at the conditions in the cave, perhaps there is something that we have never encountered before, though personally I would be surprised.’
Aris pushed him to go further and announce his ideas.
‘Let me see, if we proceed by elimination, we could possibly arrive at some kind of hypothesis. It’s not a man, it’s not an ape or monkey, and it’s not a fossil. The radiocarbon dating tests show it’s only a couple or more thousand years old...’
There was a silence, nobody dared to speak, the Professor took advantage of the pause to take a piece of crispy pork with his chopsticks, from the back of a roast suckling pig. He crunched it noisily and smacked his lips.
‘Delicious Monsieur Aris.’
He let them come to their own conclusion.
‘Then he was alive a couple of thousand years ago?’ Aris asked.
‘Who knows, I certainly don’t,’ said the Professor.
‘But it looks like that?’ said Fitznorman.
The Professor looked at his daughter, ‘What do you think my dear?’
‘You’re the expert Papa,’ Carol replied, ducking the question.
‘So I am. But it looks like it, doesn’t it?’
Aris became very serious, ‘If you’re right Professor then I imagine the news would have a huge effect on the scientific world.’
‘Yes! An earthquake of great proportions.’
‘And create a diplomatic crisis between Malaysia and Indonesia, not to speak of France!’
They passed the night in a small but comfortable house rented by Winston Marshall near the main road from Kuching and not far from the lake. They had decided to avoid the Hilton Jungle Resort Hotel where they could draw unnecessary attention to themselves. The following day they left for the longhouse, a long day’s travel ahead of them, up the rivers through the jungle to the border area, where the mountains drained down to the many rivers that flowed to the South China Sea.
In appearance it looked like a typical tourist jungle adventure-trek. Fitznorman had explained to Winston that his guests were interested in ethnology and wanted investigate the cave discovered during his last trip, which could be ancient burial site of interest. Aris was introduced as an ethnologist, he was accompanied by Agus Hendarin, a speleologist, who would assist them in exploring the cave.
Winston was used to such expeditions, but had nevertheless been surprised when Fitznorman asked him to organise another one so soon, and with four other people, including two Indonesians. However, even if he suspected something other than a simple interest in ancient burial sites and caves, the honour code of an ex-Gurkha officer did not permit him pose awkward questions to serious clients. As well as his long standing business relationship with Fitznorman, the collector was also a respected friend, and besides, Winston’s own long experience had taught him time and patience would reveal all.
They arrived at the Ruma Nyaving longhouse in the early afternoon where they were welcomed by the Tuay, who had been informed of their arrival by a neighbouring longhouse, an hour downriver, equipped with a radio telephone. The young Tuay was happy to see Winston so soon, whose first visit had been good with many fine gifts, maybe it was a sign that their life would take a turn for the better and they would have some of the things he had seen in other longhouses downriver.
As the boatmen unloaded their luggage, the visitors were settled into the longhouse biliks the Tuay had prepared for them. Fitznorman with Kate, and Professor Lundy with his daughter in an adjoining bilik. Aris and his men a little further down the ruai.
The conditions were rudimentary, but clean and posed no problem as the visitors were used to field trips far from the comforts of their homes.
Fitznorman had warned his group not to be impatient, leaving Winston to the organisation, whilst Aris talked to the Tuay in Malaysian. Aris had a long experience with the tribespeople of the Indonesian forests, he had spent his life in the forestry business and knew what mattered to them.
Though all Dayaks valued their traditional and independent way of life, they also coveted many of the things of civilisation, tools, radios, motors, objects that made their life easier. Aris presented the Tuay with a radio, flashlights and hunting knives, and best of all he promised a small bore hunting rifle at the end of their trip.
That evening sitting around the Tuay, he told them of his people and the forest, as they drank the tuak he offered them.
‘In our longhouse amongst the trees of the forest my people live in the land of our forefathers, obeying the laws and traditions handed down to us, true to our beliefs. This is our land, our home,’ he told them. ‘In our forest we find shelter, game, fruit, vegetables, medicine and every material we need. The history of our people is here, the spirits of our fathers, the stories of the exploits our great warriors.
‘On our forest trails, every tree has a message, where we have hunted, where we have found a sago palm, everything. There is a tree marked by my father, who is now dead. The lives of our people are interwoven with the forest.
‘We know every individual tree and every bend of the river, in our forest we are never lost. We have our names for all the streams and rivers, even the smallest trickle of water, we have names for every tree, plant, animal and insect.’
The Tuay talked late into the night, as they drank tuak, recounting the legends of his people, and only after they emptied the jar did they turn in for the night.
The next morning, still fuzzy from the strong drink, they took the boats upstream to the point where Fitznorman recognised the broad gravel strewn river bend leading to the cave. The Ibans hauled the boats onto the bank where they unloaded their packs. Aris paused and noted a couple of readings with his handheld GPS, marking the coordinates in his notebook.
They followed the path, which was not a path, rather a series of rocks that led up through the thick undergrowth. It was damp and very slippery. The effort in the humid jungle soon had them panting. Initially Fitznorman was worried for the Professor, but soon saw that he was in good condition, as excited as a fourteen year old on his first camping expedition. It was Aris the least agile, more used to being chauffeur driven in a Landcruiser over the almost flat terrain of his tree plantations.
Fitznorman remembered the spot and after carefully scrambling over the rock slabs by the pool side, they reached the thick curtain of creepers that had grown back into place as though it had never been disturbed. Winston once again hacked his way forward and once the entrance was clear they cautiously peered into the cave.
Winston returned to the river bank with Agus, the speleologist, collected the packs and cords that the Ibans had unloaded from the boats. Aris made more GPS readings, jotting them into his notebook, before apprehensively following them into the cave. He carefully returned his GPS into a pocket on his backpack and took out a handheld laser apparatus used for measuring distances.
Holding his flashlight Fitznorman pointed the way ahead to Agus. It was not difficult, they followed the same natural direction through the largest tunnels as he had done some weeks earlier. Soon they arrived in the first gallery where Agus inspected the walls and ceiling with his powerful lamp noting the formation of the cave.
It was exactly as Fitznorman had left it, undisturbed, evidently the Ibans took their legends of the spirits that dwelt there seriously. They continued following Agus pointing the beams of their lamps on the ground until they reached the discovery gallery and the stream, it was further than Fitznorman remembered.
Lundy told them excitedly to be extremely careful, to avoid inadvertently disturbing vital evidence, as he and Carol started to unload their photographic material and Agus set up the carbide lamps.
Once the lighting was in place Agus proceeded to draw a plan of the cave on squared paper, using measurements made with his laser device. At the same time, Carol Lundy, following the instructions of her father, carefully photographed the discovery spot and its surroundings from different angles.
Agus was certain that there was an entrance to the cave from the south-side of the hill and left them continuing his exploration deeper into the cave.
Once their equipment was set up, Lundy proceeded to carefully probe the spot where Fitznorman had extracted the skull cap, scraping at the breccia with a small trowel. Then, after what seemed like an eternity of painfully tedious work, filmed by his daughter, Lundy excitedly extracted what he mumbled were pieces of facial bone, and what looked like a small fragment of a lower jaw bone and two loose teeth. He carefully placed them in plastic envelopes and then into bubble bags.
He decided to leave the rest untouched for later more scientifically precise excavations and turned his attention to the surroundings, examining and photographing the rest of the gallery.
It looked as if the gulley, cut into the cave floor, had been gouged by the tumbling effect of water-borne rubble carried along by the stream after a collapse further back in the gallery, and certainly at some relatively recent point in time. The watercourse was almost dry, possibly due to the flow being dammed by rubble, deviated at some further point upstream.
Agus explained the rock was a typical karstic form of limestone, in which flooding, caused by heavy tropical rain, cut and frequently changed paths in the soft rock.
Fitznorman left them to clean up and followed the gulley through the gallery into the narrow tunnel that Agus had taken. He continued for some distance before the tunnel broadened again, where there was a deposit of mixed debris that had been left by the stream where it lost its force in the second gallery. He was about turn back when he saw a light approaching, it was Agus, who confirmed the existence of a large entrance some three hundred metres to the south.
When they returned they were surprised to see Lundy and his daughter were again on their knees, carefully trowelling at something that had their full attention a little further along the course of the stream. Fitznorman stood watching them absorbed in their task. Then Lundy stood up slowly holding a thick stick like a valuable offering to some strange god.
‘Extraordinary!’ he said softly, ‘a femur.’
It was the upper part of a thigh bone.
They were back in the longhouse just before nightfall weary from the heat and humidity after the afternoon’s work. Lundy was glowing with enthusiasm.
‘Well I think we have found what we came for,’ he said speaking in French, which only Fitznorman and the two girls understood. ‘Tomorrow we shall leave. We cannot disturb such a valuable site. We have to organise a full scale dig with the approval of the authorities. For the moment though we shall keep it quiet.’
Aris waited patiently realising that he should not interject. As soon as Winston left to attend to the preparations for their departure the next morning, Aris turning to Professor Lundy asked, ‘What does the femur tell you?’
‘Well if my guess is right it belongs to our man.’
‘Is it fossilised?’
‘No, otherwise it would not be his.’
‘Is there anything special about the cave, I mean did it help to preserve the bones.’
‘In my opinion no, the cave has nothing special about it, it’s typical of this region,’ said Agus.
‘So what does that mean?’
‘That is the question,’ said Lundy.
They flew back to Singapore with Aris, leaving Agus Hendarin at the airport in transit for his flight back to Jakarta, where he had the task of preparing a detailed map of the cave and fixing its position relative to the territorial limit of the adjoining two countries.
Carol and Kate took the connecting flight to Paris, in Carol’s hand baggage were the precious bones, the facial fragments, teeth and the femur. Samples of the sand and breccia from the cave were with her check-in luggage.
Fitznorman and Lundy were booked on the Air France flight the following day, staying over to discuss plans for the next move with Aris. The following afternoon Aris informed them that his office had communicated the preliminary assessment made by Agus Hendarin. After his calculations, based on the on-site GPS readings, the entrance to the cave was indeed on the Indonesia side of the border, as well its adjoining galleries.
That was the Indonesian interpretation, which could be open to dispute.
According to Aris, the precise position of the border, on the ground, had been designated by marker stones every five hundred metres, but these had not been inspected for years, decades, and were lost in the dense forest. As a result the exact position of the border line separating the two countries was an open question, it had never been precisely mapped using modern methods, and all related data was classified under the heading of national defence and security, by both Malaysia and Indonesia.
Late the same afternoon Fitznorman, together with Professor Lundy, bid Aris goodbye, promising to keep him informed of every new development. Their flight to Paris was scheduled at eleven-thirty that evening. Arriving at Changi International Airport they checked-in and proceeded through passport control presenting their departure cards. As they continued to the first class lounge a uniformed man appeared and invited them to return to customs control point.
They were a little amused and bewildered as they were neither drug runners nor smugglers. They were politely shown into a small room where they were presented with their baggage.
‘Is this your baggage sir?’ a customs officer asked Lundy, high ranking judging from the bars on his shoulder.
‘Yes,’ Lundy replied surprised to see his baggage so soon again.
The officer addressed the same question to Fitznorman pointing to the other two suite cases.
‘Would you kindly open them?’
‘Is there some problem?’
‘Just routine,’ the officer replied with a stiff face.
The contents were inspected carefully and then re-inspected. Could you please open your hand baggage?
The opened their hand baggage, which was examined with equal thoroughness.
‘Could you please step over here Sir,’ the officer said pointing to a space between the counter and the wall.
‘Please empty your pockets.’
They obeyed and were searched by a uniformed assistant wearing white gloves.
‘You have no other baggage.’
‘What is your business?’ he asked inspecting their passport control and departure cards, which he had placed to one side on the counter.
Lundy replied that he was a scientist, in a government organisation. Fitznorman replied he was an art dealer.
‘Have you bought any items of art in Singapore or Malaysia?’
‘No,’ they truthfully replied.
‘Thank you gentleman, you may continue to the departure lounge.’
They left a little shaken by the experience. On arrival in the first class lounge the hostess invited them to help themselves at the bar. They poured a couple of good shots of whisky and sat down.
‘What was all that about?’ asked Fitznorman.
‘Let’s go to the toilets.’
They entered into the toilets and Fitznorman went to a wash basin and turned on the taps. Lundy looked around and followed suit.
‘You can guess what’s going on as well as I,’ Lundy said in a low voice. ‘The sooner we’re on the plane the better. I think it’s better if we keep quiet until were on board, we don’t know if we’re being watched or eavesdropped.’
They boarded the Air France Airbus and settled into the broad comfortable seats of the First Class cabin. The hostess offered them a glass of Champagne, which they readily accepted and anxiously waited as the doors of the aircraft were closed and the Airbus commenced its taxi towards the runway.
The flight took off as scheduled and very soon they were airborne over the Straits of Malacca for the twelve hour flight to Paris. As the aircraft climbed into the night sky they finally relaxed and started to speak with ease for the first time since they had left the customs office.
‘Thank God we’re on our way.’
‘What was that all about with the customs?’
‘I think it’s evident somebody suspects we have found something, but they don’t know what, they probably think that we have some valuable objects, I don’t know, valuable artefacts or things like that.’
‘When they know who you are maybe they’ll put two and two together. There’s no record of treasure being found in the caves of that region and there’s no reason to suspect an anthropological find where none have previously existed.’
‘You wouldn’t remember the skull called SM-3?’
‘No…,’ he said hesitating, ‘Ah yes, I vaguely remember that now.’
‘It was originally found in Indonesia in 1977, near the towns of Poloya and Sambungmacan, in central Java, by dredgers on the Solo River.’
‘The famous Solo River.’
‘Well it disappeared more than twenty years ago, illegally exported from Indonesia after appearing on the antiquities market.’
‘What happened to it?’
‘Lucky we didn’t get caught.’
‘Yes, you are guilty on two counts of illegally exporting antiquities, and dissimulating an important archaeological discovery, we could end up in prison, that would look good for me, Head of Palaeoanthropology at the Museum of Natural History in Paris! We were dam lucky that Carol left yesterday with the bones.’
‘You’re damn right.’
‘It was probably one of the Iban boatmen who spoke with the antique dealers in Kuching, or something like that.’
‘I’ll call Aris when we get back, warn him.’
That ate their dinner and then settled down to sleep for the rest of the flight.
The facial bones fragments belonged to the skull cap and the femur corresponded with the estimated age of the same individual. It was clear to Lundy that they had a single specimen and that the specimen had been alive less than three thousand years before.
It was a stunning discovery that would turn the whole science of anthropology and the theories of human evolution upside down. There were many things to verify and tests to be carried out on the rock and soil samples taken from the site.
It was impossible with the little information they possessed of the site to deduct any further conclusions. Perhaps there were other remains, or other individuals, buried in the cave, perhaps it had been a primitive camp of some kind.
Borneensis appeared to be an incredible Dodo, who had existed in isolation, in the vast mountain range that ran from east to west across the island of Borneo.
Lundy knew little of the history of that part of the world. He knew that the Chinese had traded along the coast of the huge island for more than a thousand years, exchanging their wares against exotic woods, spices, animals and bird feathers. Huge junks laden with many thousands of pieces of porcelain and earthen ware jars had visited the coast, as the wreckage of ancient trading junks witnessed.
Few outsiders had ever penetrated very far into the interior until the end of the nineteenth century. The local tribe’s peoples had lived on the coast and on the banks of rivers not far from the coastal regions. Who had lived in the interior, in the dense jungle covered mountains, only the nomadic Punans could say.
As a scientist Lundy knew it was time to set up a research team with specialists in all the fields of anthropology and archaeology, but also he also needed specialists in Late Neolithic history, an uncommon need for a branch science, which studied fossilised bones, the most recent of which were older than the history of civilisation itself.