The first wave of visitors hit the beaches of Bali around three to four thousand years ago. These seafaring Austronesians made their way through the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, eventually landing on Bali’s silvery shores. Migrating inwards from the coasts, they spread across the island, leaving rough stone tools and several burial sites for later generations to find.
The picture of Bali’s prehistoric past is still incomplete, for only a few clues have been found by archaeologists. But from what evidence has been unearthed, we know that by the first centuries A.D. the people who populated the island already possessed many of the cultural traits that distinguish today’s Balinese. They grew rice in both dry fields and irrigated paddies; they harnessed water buffalo to the plow, and they kept pigs and chickens for food.
They structured their society into small villages and held community meetings using large stone ceremonial platforms. Their religion appeared to have combined ancestor worship with a fertility cult centered around the rice goddess, now known as Dewi Sri. Tantalizing glimpses into Bali’s long-ago past are available to history buffs at a number of spots around the island.
Denpasar’s Bali Museum boasts among its collections a number of artifacts from the Bronze Age and before, including stone sarcophagi used in ancient Bali to bury the dead and metal and stone implements and ornaments. In the village of Pejeng in Gianyar lies one of Bali’s most famous ancient objects: The Moon of Pejeng, a huge bronze kettle-gong thought to be around 2,000 years old and renowned as the largest of its kind in all of Asia.
Measuring 1.5 meters wide and almost 2 meters tall, this beautiful item, carved with stylized frogs, faces and geometric designs, is still considered to possess great power, and is kept safe in the village temple. Archaeologists are unsure as to its exact age and origin, but stories are still told by the villagers to explain it. Some say it’s an earring dropped by a mythical giant or the goddess of the moon, while others say it’s a wheel that fell off the chariot of the moon god.
Its greenish color is thought to be the result of an unfortunate incident in which a would-be thief, angered by its radiance, urinated on the gong to put out its glow. As the scoundrel’s stream hit the metal it lost its sheen, but the thief lost his life as punishment for his evil deed — a lesson to all on how to treat holy objects. Other fascinating finds — less magical perhaps but no less wondrous to behold — can be found in the Archaelogical Museum in the same village, including huge turtle-shaped sarcophagi dating back to Bali’s Megalithic Age.