Burial Site of Pamona Ancestors: Latea Cave, Central Sulawesi

Latea Cave is more than 30 million years old. This natural cave is located in the limestone of Parere Hill. It is the place where the Pamona people, the indigenous residents of Poso, traditionally buried their ancestors. The Pamona people have lived in the hills of Central Sulawesi for generations; particularly in the Wawolembo area. Their practice of putting the dead in caves did not stop until the 19th century.

Latea Cave is comprised of two sections. The first section is located at the lower part of the cave. Here you can find four pairs of coffins and 36 skeletons. The second section is located at the upper part of the cave. Here one can find 17 pairs of coffins, 47 skeletons and five bracelets. Both caves were renovated in 1994 as Ruslan Sangadji explains.

The manner in which the Pamona people buried their dead was similar to the burial practice till prevailing in Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi. “The Pamona people and the Toraja people historically share a very close kinship,” says Yustinus Hoke, a cultural activist of Pamona. Owing to this kinship, some traditional practices of the Pamona and Toraja people are the same, including the practice of putting their dead in caves.

Another cave used by the ancestors of the Pamona people is the Pamona Cave. This cave is located on the edge of Lake Poso. It has 12 rooms. According to Yustinus Hoke, the specific rooms in which the dead were placed was dependent on their social class.

Although it is the burial site of the ancestors of the Pamona people, during the 20th and 21st century the Pamona Cave would become both an attractive tourist spot as well as a playground for the local kids.

Ruweyana Gundo, a local resident, said recently that she used to spend her free time inside the Pamona Cave in her childhood. Sometimes she and her classmates would skip class and spend their time playing in the cave. Relying on her childhood experience in the cave, Ruweyana can give a detailed description of each room.

“Only the first three rooms are easily accessible,” said Ruweyana. “If you want to go to the other rooms you must use a flashlight as it is very dark there. The twelfth room is actually submerged under the water of Lake Poso,” she said.

Latea Cave is located about two kilometers away from the main road of Tentena, the capital of North Pamona district, Poso regency. To get there, visitors must ride a motorcycle a distance of one kilometer and then walk for another kilometer from the main road.

Before reaching Latea Cave, one will have to pass two bridges. The first bridge is still in good condition while the second is in a poor state. Locals have used bamboo and wooden planks to cover the damaged part of the second bridge but the trip across remains precarious.

While the Pamona caves have been popular with foreign tourists in the past, more recently, since 1998 and the start of the prolonged bloody conflicts in Poso, visits to the area by foreign tourists have abated.

The last time both caves saw many visitors was in 1997 during the 9th Lake Poso Festival. “Since the violence the two caves have seen very few visitors,” said Reverend Hengky Bawias, of the local church. The Reverend also commented that some of the facilities in the area have fallen into disrepair. “The second bridge began to deteriorate rapidly in 2004. Unfortunately very little has been done about it.”

Reverend Hengky is saddened by the fact that neither Latea Cave or Pamona Cave were included in the 10th Lake Poso Festival which was held late last year. “The reason for excluding these important cultural heritage sites has remained unclear,” said Reverend Hengky.

According to Roana Kabi, a member of the 10th Lake Poso Festival’s organizing committee in charge of public affairs, the committee organized the 10th Lake Poso Festival simply to revive the festival.

“We will be sure to include all cultural and tourist items in the 2008 Lake Poso Festival. Right now, our goal is only to carry out a campaign to inform the world that Poso is a safe place,” said Roana.