The Great Lakes Project

Picture 1

The River Walennaé rises to form Lake Témpé. Photo Campbell Macknight

Between the mouths of the Cenrana river in the east and the Saddan river in the west lies a wide band of upper-tertiary marine sediments, extending southwards to the Soppeng valley. The land in this depression  appears to have emerged from the sea only in the Holocene, the final stages of the process within living memory (Pelras 1996).  The eastern edge of Lake Tempe, in the centre of the depression, lies a mere six meters above sea level and provides evidence of salt water influence in the form of mangrove stands between 7100><70 and 2610 ><50 BP (Gremmen 1991), when sea levels were higher than at present (Klerk 1983). Due to fertile alluvial soils and bi-annual rainfall, the Tempe depression is the main rice growing area of South Sulawesi.

Bulbeck and Caldwell (2000) identified the region around lakes Tempe as the pre-AD 1200 cultural and economic homeland of the Bugis people of South Sulawesi. Stephen Druce (2005) also provides evidence of early Bugis settlement around lake Sidenreng and east to Suppaq (modern Parepare). At the Ankor: Landscape, City and Temple conference at the University of Sydney in July 2006, Caldwell presented evidence that the main lakeside areas of early settlement were on the low ridge running north from the town of Sengkang on the western shore of lake Tempe, and around Amparita, to the east of lake Sidenreng. Both locations offer permanently dry land with access to valuable wetlands, and good lines of communication to the east and west coasts respectively.

At the time of the project, the hydrology of the Tempe depression was only partially understood. Whitten et al. (1987) state that Lake Tempe is filled by the southern Walennae river. Giesen et al. (1991) provide evidence that the Bila river river, which flows from the north, provides two thirds of lake Tempe’s water.  Outside these publications, it is difficult to find date on either river in English. Understanding the hydrology is important because lakes Tempe and Tappareng (and to a lesser degree lake Sidenreng) undergo a remarkable annual cycle of flooding and emptying, similar to that of the Cambodia’s Tonle Sap, with important consequences for human occupation and landscape use.

The Great Lakes project ran from June 2006 to September 2007 and was funded by the British Academy. Participating researchers were Ian Caldwell, Stephen Druce and Budianto Hakim. The project aimed to research and to document the region’s hydrology and its effect on the landscape, with reference to long-term human habitation and agriculture. A publication is in preparation.


Bulbeck, D. and I. Caldwell. 2000. Land of iron; the historical archaeology of Luwu and the Cenrana valley. Hull: Centre for South-East Asian Studies, University of Hull.

Gremmen, W. 1990. Palynological investigations in the Danau Tempe depression, southwest Sulawesi (Celebes). Modern Quaternary Research in Southeast Asia 11:23-34.

Giesen et al. (eds) 1991. Integrating conservation with land-use development in wetlands of South Sulawesi. Bogor: Directorate of Forest Production and Nature Conservation and Asian Wetlands Bureau.

Klerk, D. 1983. Zeespiegels, riffen en Kustvlakten in zuidwest Sulawesi, Indonesië; Een morfogenetisch-bodemkundige studie. PhD thesis, University of Utrecht.

Pelras, C. 1996. The Bugis. Oxford: Blackwell.

Whitten, A. et al. 1987. The ecology of Sulawesi. Yogyakarta,: Gajah Mada University Press