Malaysia is the only country to straddle both Mainland and Island Southeast Asia: Peninsular Malaysia, located to the south of Thailand, and Bornean Malaysia comprising the states of Sabah and Sarawak. Some of the most notable archaeological and cultural sites in Malaysia are the Unesco World Heritage cities of Penang and Malacca (jointly listed), the Lenggong Valley in Perak, the Bujang Valley archaeoloigical park (Kedah) and the Niah Caves (Sarawak).
Evidence for hominid habitation, likely Homo erectus, in Malaysia have been found in the Lenggong Valley of Perak. The oldest modern human remains in East Malaysia are from the Niah Caves, dated to 40,000 years ago while in West Malaysia, the Perak Man on Gua Gunung Runtuh is around 11,000 years old. The first human inhabitants of Malaysia were probably the ancestors of today’s Negritos; subsequent waves of migration saw people from Mainland Southeast Asia and Island Southeast Asia coming in during the Neolithic.
During the first millennium CE, Chinese records and other inscriptional evidence indicate a number of small kingdoms existed along the coastlines of Peninsular Malaysia. Some of the earliest accounts of these settlements are provided by the “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea” (c. 80 CE), a manual on sea navigation that describes an extensive route network through the western Indian Ocean from Arabia to India and onwards to China. Only one area with extensive archaeological remains survive today, Bujang Valley in Kedah. Numerous brick ruins have been discovered, similar to those found in Southern Thailand, suggest the presence of a Hindu-Buddhist polity. Ongoing archaeological investigations have shown that this area to be inhabited since at least the first century CE.
According to the Malay Annals, a Palembang prince and former king of Singapura named Parameswara founded Malacca around 1400 CE. The Malacca Sultanate became a major regional power, controlling the Straits of Malacca and establishing friendly relations with Ming China. Malacca’s swift rise to dominance of the seas and conversion to Islam led to the adoption of Islam in most other areas of the Malay world which remains the dominant religion in Island Southeast Asia today.
Malacca was taken over by successive waves of colonisation, first by the Portuguese, and then the Dutch. In the 19th century, the British secured control of the Malayan peninsula and northern Borneo, while the Dutch controlled the rest of the East Indies. The sultanates on the Malayan peninsula aligned with the British for protection against the Siamese. The British administered the Straits Settlements including Penang, Malacca and Singapore, with Singapore as the seat of the government. Following World War II, Malaysia became an independent nation in 1963.
Archaeology in Malaysia is overseen at the federal level by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (specifically by the Department of Heritage and Department of Museums) but also at the state level by local museums and government authorities. Archaeological research is conducted by government agencies and universities, notably by the Centre for Global Archaeological Research at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the Sarawak Museum.
Malaysia is home to several notable archaeological discoveries that have revealed an extensive history and evidence that proves Malaysia was a significant trading hub throughout the ancient world. Here is a list of some of the more significant archaeological sites in Malaysia. Not all of these sites are open to the public, and the locations marked on the map may not be exact. For more information about museums in Malaysia, check out the museum page here.
There are a number of books relevant to the archaeology and history of Malaysia, and the list below is my personal recommendation based on what I have in my library or have read, and easily available. There are some local-language publications that are not available in the internet, and newer books are higher up on the list. Some of these links are affiliate links and I may receive a commission if you click on them and make a purchase. For other sources of reliable academic information, you should also check out the books page for latest releases and the occassional free book, as well as the journals page for the latest scientific research.
Last update on 2023-09-21 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
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