Special: Six new Neolithic burials from Sarawak revealed

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 this special  SEAArch web report.

Six human burials excavated from Gua Kain Hitam, Niah, Sarawak in June 2007.
Six human burials excavated from Gua Kain Hitam, Niah, Sarawak in June 2007.

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 USM’s centre for conservation.  

L-R: Ipoi Datan (Sarawak Museum), Assoc. Prof. Dr. Stephen Chia (USM), Sanib Haji Said (Sarawak Museum), Dr Mokhtar Saidin (USM) and Assoc. Prof. Hirofumi Matsumura (Sapporo Medical University).
L-R: Ipoi Datan (Sarawak Museum), Assoc. Prof. Dr. Stephen Chia (USM), Sanib Haji Said (Sarawak Museum), Dr Mokhtar Saidin (USM) and Assoc. Prof. Hirofumi Matsumura (Sapporo Medical University).

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.

Burial 6, by far the most complete of the six skeletons. None of the burials had intact skulls.
Burial 6, by far the most complete of the six skeletons. None of the burials had intact skulls.

By comparison, the six skeletons presented today are young, dating 2,000 – 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.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Matsumura talking about Burial 2’s warped right femur.
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Matsumura talking about Burial 2’s warped right femur.
A closer look at Burial 2’s femurs – the warped one is on top.
A closer look at Burial 2’s femurs – the warped one is on top.

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.

The red-coloured skull of Burial 4
The red-coloured skull of Burial 4
The skeletal remains from Pulau Kalumpang, recovered as part of a UKM excavation in August 2008. They are currently undergoing desalination, a process that takes several weeks.
The skeletal remains from Pulau Kalumpang, recovered as part of a UKM excavation in August 2008. They are currently undergoing desalination, a process that takes several weeks.

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)

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

2 thoughts on “Special: Six new Neolithic burials from Sarawak revealed”

  1. got to this from your archeology blog. This is great! I love the photos! It has aroused my curiosity to learn moe about these people. I hope the scientists figure out why the women were buried in the opposite direction from the males. Keep up the good work…

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