This morning, the Centre for Archaeology Research, Malaysia at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang unveiled two sets of burials from the Niah cave complex in Sarawak and Pulau Kelumpang in Perak. Check out the new finds in thisÂ special Â SEAArch web report.
Speaking at a press conference, Centre Director Dr. Mokhtar Saidin introduced the two sets of skeletal finds: Six Neolithic skeletal remains were recovered in June 2007 from Gua Kain Hitam near the Painted Cave in Niah, Sarawak, by a joint team led by Associate Professor Stephen Chia of USM. The three skeletons recovered from Pulau Kalumpang in Perak were recovered by an archaeological team from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in August 2008, but were sent to the laboratory at the USMâ€™s centre for conservation. Â
The six skeletons represent the most significant find from the Niah cave complex in almost 50 years. The caves of Niah were first excavated in 1958 by Tom and Barbara Harrison, and the earlier excavation unearthed, among other things, a fragment of skull that was dated back 40,000 years.
By comparison, the six skeletons presented today are young, dating 2,000 â€“ 3,000 years. Despite the deterioration of the skeletal remains, a number of things could be garnered from the bones. Assoc. Prof. Hirofumi Matsumura of the Sapporo Medical University said that the humans were relatively short-statured, ranging between 150-160 cm (by comparison, Perak Man was about 170 cm). More significantly, the skeletons are of the Australomelanasoid affinity, which means they were natives of Sundaland (the geological land shelf on which much of island Southeast Asia sits on) and possibly represent the continuous habitation of the cave site rather part of the migratory group originating from Southern China that is thought to populate Southeast Asia in this period. Burial 2, a male, also had an abnormality on the left femur, but Dr. Matsumura said that it was too early to say if this abnormality was a result of an injury or some congenital disease.
Most of the skeletons were male, and they were buried with their head pointing to the Northwest; the exceptional female was buried the opposite direction, with her head pointing to the Southeast. In addition, pieces of ochre were placed around the head during burial, leading to the red colour in many of these skulls. It would seem that the sexual differentiation of burial orientations and the practice of burial with ochre indicate some sort sort of ritual, but the exact nature and reasons for these rituals are unclear.
That’s it for this special report, with special thanks to Assoc. Prof. Dr Stephen Chia and the Centre for Archaeology, Malaysia for the kind permission to attend the press conference and take pictures. I’ll post the articles from the other news media as and when they get published – it’ll be quite interesting to see how they’ll cover this story – but you read it here first!
Find out more about the archaeology of the Niah Caves in:
– Archaeological work in Sarawak: With special reference to Niah Caves (Sarawak Museum occasional paper)
– Summary of archaeological work in Sarawak: With special reference to Niah Caves (Sarawak Museum occasional paper)
– Archaeology in Sarawak
– Bioarchaeology of Southeast Asia (Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology)
– Early History (The Encyclopedia of Malaysia)