Malaysia is the only country to straddle both Mainland and Island Southeast Asia
Malaysia is spread over two land masses: 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).
This page covers the archaeology of Malaysia as a whole, and you can find more details about the other countries in their respective pages or explore the Resource Guide for thematic areas. There’s also the Virtual Archaeology page where you can visit Southeast Asian archaeological sites online, learn something from the Online Lecture Library, or find recent academic papers for more up-to-date research.
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.
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 2022-05-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
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Malaysian Archaeology in the News
The news reports indexed below usually link to external sites that were active at the time of posting; sometimes websites may be temporarily down or may have reorganised their underlying architecture or have even closed down – in these cases the links may not be available. Most of the news articles archived are in English; this is largely because I do not have a working competency in Bahasa, although when I am made aware of stories in this and other languages I try to index them.
Looking for something specific? You can also use this search box:
These are links to external sites and unless stated, I have no connection with the organisations or entities in these links or control over their content. They are sorted alphabetically, but you should also explore the Resources page which have links sorted by themes. If you have a link to suggest, please get in touch!
- Caves of Malaysia – run by speleologist Liz Price, a good source of geological, botanical, zoological and archaeological information to caves in Malaysia.
- The Cultured Rainforest Project – is headed by the University of Cambridge to investigate the people of the Kelabit Highlands and their interactions with the forest in the present and past.
- Gua Tambun Heritage Awareness Project – An interactive and collaborative platform that aims to promote public awareness and appreciation for Gua Tambun Prehistoric Rock Art, under the auspices of Centre for Global Archaeological Research (CGAR) affiliated to University Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang.
- Heritage Trust of Malaysia – Badan Warisan, or the Heritage Trust of Malaysia, is an NGO dedicated to conserving and educating about Malaysia’s built heritage.
- History of the Malay Peninsula – An informative overview about the ancient history of the Malay Peninsula, by writer Sabri Zain, starting from the 1st century AD. Brief introductions to the Buddhist and Hindu periods to the start of the Melaka Sultanate.
- ICOMOS Malaysia
- Jabatan Muzium Malaysia (Department of Museums, Malaysia) – The official government website for the Department of Museums, Malaysia.
- Jabatan Warisan Negara – Department of Heritage, Malaysia.
- Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (MBRAS)– Incorporating the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (JMBRAS), that publishes occasional papers on Malaysian archaeology.
- Malaysian Timeline – A timeline describing the preiods of Malaysian history from prehistory to modern times.
- Maritime Asia – Website of the Maritime Archaeology Exhibition at the Muzium Negara, featuring 7 shipwrecks found in Malaysia’s waters.
- Nanhai Marine Archaeology Sdn. Bhd. – A Malaysia-based company the specialises in historical shipwrecks and the history and development of Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics.
- The Niah Cave Project – An archaeological project by the University of Leicester.
- Public Archaeology at Fort Cornwallis – An initiative by the George Town Conservation and Development Corporation (GTCDC) and University Sains Malaysia (USM). Facebook page.