|CAVE ARCHAEOLOGY IN MALAYSIA
THE LENGGONG VALLEY, PERAK
The Lenggong valley in Ulu Perak is one of Peninsular Malaysia's most important areas for archaeology, as excavations have revealed many traces of Malaysia's prehistory. The town of Lenggong is situated some 100 kilometres north of Ipoh on the Kuala Kangsar to Grik road. A new highway runs from the Kuala Kangsar toll to Lenggong. It is the site of the oldest known place of human activity in the Peninsula. Today it is still a rural area, with small kampungs surrounded by green vegetation and limestone hills. Lenggong can be likened to an open-air museum, and is home to legends, skeletons, cave drawings and precious finds such as jewellery, pottery, weapons and stone tools. Many of the caves in the Lenggong area have revealed evidence of ancient humans having lived and hunted in this area. One cave, Gua Badak C, has preserved cemented alluvial material which is rich in herbivorous fossils.
The Lenggong Archaeological Museum, also known as the Kota Tampan Archaeological Museum opened in 2003. It exhibits artifacts excavated from the Kota Tampan area. In 2012 it changed name to Archaeological Gallery.
Just north of Lenggong on the main road are signs listing archaeological trails to the Gua Gunung Runtuh and other sites.
At the end of Dec 2009 it was announced that there were plans to nominate Lenggong Valley to Unesco as a world archaeological heritage site. It is now on the tentative list of the World Heritage Convention. See more on archives 2012. In May 2012 Lenggong was declared a national heritage. On 30 June 2012 UNESCO announced that the Archaelogical Heritage of the Lenggong Valley had been included on the World Heritage list.
See Dept Natural Heritage site on Lenggong.
Perak Man, found in 1991, is the only complete human skeleton which has been found in Malaysia. The cave that was his final resting place is called Gua Gunung Runtuh and is situated in Bukit Kepala Gajah or Elephant's Head Hill in the Lenggong Valley. The skeleton has been dated at between 10-11,000 years old, which makes him a Stone Age man, from the Palaeolithic period. It is believed he was an important member of his tribe judging by the way he was buried, in a foetal position, accompanied by stone tools. He was about 157cm tall and probably aged between 30-55 when he died. Perak Woman was found more recently in 2004. This is an 8000 year old skeleton found in Gua Teluk Kelawar in Lenggong. A film has been made on Perak Man. The skeleton has been housed in Muzium Negara and in Sept 2013 it was announced the bones will be returned to the Lenggong Valley and are scheduled to be on display by Feb 2014. The cave is now closed to the general public.
Kota Tampan area and Bukit Jawa (non cave) - and worldwide comparisons
The Kota Tampan area in Ulu Perak was the earliest known site of human inhabitation in Peninsula Malaysia, until the Bukit Jawa site was found later. Excavations which began in 1983 at Kota Tampan revealed an undisturbed stone tool production area, and some 50,000 pieces of stone have been found and recorded, and the culture is referred to as Tampanian. The workshop was initially dated at 30,000 years old, but this figure has now been revised to 74,000 years. More recently (1996) a team has been digging a site at Bukit Jawa in Kampung Gelok, and found over 150,000 pieces of stone artifacts from 24 excavation trenches. Bukit Jawa has been dated at 200,000 years old by the Universiti Sains Malaysia Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia, (this changed its name to the Centre for Global Archaeological Research, PPAG, in February 2009) which is therefore far older than the Kota Tampan workshop, which is just 6 km away. Together with the nearby Temelong and also Lawin, (both dated 200-100,000 years) it is one of the oldest Paleolithic sites in Malaysia, suggesting that the Lenggong Valley is the oldest human settlement in Malaysia. But all these findings are still very young compared to those from Africa, where the predecessors of the human species originated about 3 - 5 million years ago.
Bukit Bunuh in Lenggong (not a cave site) is a meteor impact site that was discovered in 2000. Initially this Palaeolithic site was dated at around 40K years old. But now the area is said to be more than 1.86 million years old and considered the oldest Palaeolithic site in Southeast Asia, acording to Prof Zuraina (Bernama, 3 June 2010). A hand axe made of quartzite rock was found embedded in layers of suevite caused by meteorite impact. This suevite rock was dated to 1.83 million years. This made big news in early 2009. Coincindentally this news came out in 2009 just about a month after the news of stone tools from S.Africa - see below. In May 2011 the Sun reported that the site has been declared as a "Quaternary Stratigraphic Unit".
Assoc Prof Dr Mokhtar Saidin said 'Bukit Bunuh would be the oldest prehistoric settlement in the world after Africa according to chronometric dating'. More on the importance of Bukit Bunuh.
Bukit Bunuh is slightly older than the Sangiran site in Java (see below). My blog on Bukit Bunuh.
In Dec 2008 it was announced in the international news that the earliest evidence of cave-dwelling human ancestors had been discovered at Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa. Stone tools found in the cave were dated and believed to be 2 million years old. The tools were found in the bottom level of the cave, and geological evidence indicates that these tools were left in the cave and not washed into the site from the outside. This shows that human ancestors (hominids) were in the cave earlier than ever thought before and is the earliest evidence of intentional cave occupation. There were a number of species of hominids in southern Africa 2 million years ago. The most likely candidate as the manufacturer of the stone tools found at Wonderwerk is Homo habilis. Two methods are used for dating - Paleomagnetic Dating and Cosmogenic Burial Age dating.
In May 2015 there was news the world's oldest stone tools had been discovered in Kenya. They were dated at 3.3 myo which is 700,000 years older than previous tools found. The dating was done from volcanic ash and minerals around the tools. See BBC report.
Dec 2013 the media reported on 400,000 year old DNA being found from human bones in a cave in Spain. Nat Geog report.
In July 2015 it was announced that a human tooth dated at around 565,000 years old had been found in a French cave. Arago cave near the village of Tautavel is one of the world's most important prehistoric sites and has been under excavation for about 50 years. See BBC report.
"The first modern humans (Homo sapiens) didn't arrive in Europe until 50,000 years ago, but the ancestors of early humans arrived much earlier.
Hominid remains dating more than 1.3 million years old have been discovered in Spain, but in France, the oldest human fossil is the 450,000 year-old Homo erectus skeleton called Tautavel Man -- also found at the Arago cave." from UPI.
Comparison with other Asian countries -
In Indonesia 880,000 year old stone artefacts are known from Flores, and more recently artefacts dating to one million years ago have been found, indicating that hominins had colonized the island by then
(Nature). Hominins are known to have been on Java since 750,000 years ago.
Gua Song Terus in the Gunung Sewu karst of Java is said to be the oldest site of human cave habitation in Southeast Asia, and dates to 300,000 years. However much older is the Sangiran site in central Java, dated from 1.2 to 1.7 million years old. This area, dug 1936-41 is now a World Heritage
site. The discovery of Palaeolithic stone tools and Neolithic axes show that hominids
have inhabited the area for at least 1.5 million years. The earliest hominid fossils
date back to 1.66 myo. These include Java Man, which was excavated from the Sangiran
site in 1891 and has since been reclassified as Homo erectus. Older is the
nearby Mojokerto child (discovered 1936), dated by
Swisher's group from Berkeley in 1994 at about 1.81 million years.
At the end of 2009 it was announced on many websites that a 110,000 year old putative Homo sapiens mandible had been uncovered from a cave in southern China's Guangxi province. Older than that is Peking Man. Peking Man is an ancient human ancestor that lived in the Zhoukoudian site and was originally dated at 500,000 - 200,000 years ago. More recent research has put the date as old as 750,000 years. In 2014 a news report suggested that these ancient people used fire
as far back as 770,000 years.
In June 2009 it was announced that the world's oldest pottery may have been found in a cave at Yuchanyan in China's Hunan province. The specimens were found to be 17,500 to 18,300 years old. The Yuchanyan cave was the site where the oldest kernels of rice were found in 2005, and it is viewed as an important link between cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer peoples and the farmers that arose later in the basin of the nearby Yangtze River.
The previous oldest-known example of pottery was found in Japan, dated to an age between 16,000 and 17,000 years ago, but debate has raged in the
archaeological community as to whether pottery was first made in China or
End June 2012 there were many media reports saying the oldest known pottery now comes from a south China cave and is 20,000 years old. It was found in Xianrendong cave in Jiangxi province in the 1960s which was redug in the 1990s. Report in Science journal 29 June 2012.
Rice has proved to be an important feature in archaeology. Rice husks
have been found in caves and other archaeological sites across Southeast
Asia and have been dated. Beavitt reported that rice from Gua Sireh in Sarawak, has been dated from 2300 BC, showing that people were growing rice there more than 4000 years ago. In China it is said that rice was cultivated as early as 6000 BC. In Peninsula Malaysia, the rice found at Gua Cha in Kelantan dates to the 11th century. In Vietnam, scientists have managed to get 3000 year old rice to sprout.
TASIK KENYIR, TERENGGANU
Tasik Kenyir in ulu Terengganu is the largest man-made lake in south east Asia. When the area was flooded with water between 1978 and 1985, most of the hilltops and highlands remained above water level, thus creating about 340 man-made islands. Before the creation of the lake, there were probably several caves accessible and some were of archaeological importance. However when the area was flooded, most of the caves were lost underwater. Batu Tok Bidan cave in Gunung Bewah was one of those. Prior to its disappearance, archaeologists had discovered Neolithic artifacts such as kitchen utensils, stone adzes and pottery sherds. Mollusc shells with the tips broken off suggests the site was frequently used as a shelter in the prehistoric past. Even a Neolithic burial was found, with broken pottery laid at the foot of the deceased. The Neolithic or New Stone Age era occurred roughly 10,000 years ago. The cave was probably adjacent to two well-known routes used by the aborigines in prehistoric times through Terengganu to Sungai Tembling. The cave was first dug in 1959 by R.Noone, and later by Malaysian Historical Society in 1976.
In Feb 2010 the media announced the discovery of human skeletal remains believed to be from the Mesolithic Age in Bewah Cave. Initial estimates are put at 8,000 and 11,000 years old. Pottery was also found. The digs are ongoing. On Mar 10 Bernama reported that the skeletal remains are confirmed to be 16,000 years old. If this is correct, that makes them older than Perak Man. But the same report also says that Perak Man is 13,000 years! Also filed on archive page.
In Aug 2011 Bernama reported that Bewah Man is now 13,400 years old. However no scientific papers seem to have been published. The Bewah remains continued to make the news in Sept and there are plans to build more tourist facilities.
However the sex of the skeleton was unknown, but local researchers suggest it is a woman. There was also talk of a geo-park.
In Feb 2012 the media reported the discovery of a second prehistoric skeleton, also in Gua Bewah, and not far from where the first skeleton was found. See archives 2012.
Kelantan is the state north of Terengganu. In Apr 2010 there was a report on the Negrito aborigines, or Orang Asli, indicating that the Negritos’ history dates back 10,000 years. In Aug 2011 an article in The Star revealed that the Kelantan Malays are the oldest in the peninsula and their presence was said to have been traced back to 60,000 years (also filed on archives).
An older discovery in Malaysia is a 40,000 year old human skull found in Niah Cave in Sarawak in 1958. It is thought to be female. Since then archaeologists have continued to make important finds in Niah which reveal a period of human activity in the cave dating around 50,000 years ago.
In June 2007 six Neolithic skeletal remains were found in Gua Kain Hitam near the Painted Cave in Niah, Sarawak, by a joint team led by Associate Professor Stephen Chia of USM. These are the most important finds in 50 years. See fuller report with photos on SEArch .
A short clip of Niah Cave by BBC Earth News.
Niah was nominated as a World Heritage Site in mid 2010. Read more on Sarawak org, also on archives. There is an Archaeology Museum at Niah.
The Niah skull are the oldest human bones known in Malaysia.
Other human remains from Asia:
Some of Japan's oldest human bone fragments were found in a cave on
Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture between 2007 and 2009. They date to between 15,000 and 20,000 years old, the country’s Paleolithic Period. The bones include fragments of the skull of a man aged in his 20s to 30s, bone from the foot of an adult of unknown gender, and bone from the calf of an adult male. Radiocarbon-dating found that the skull is about 20,000 years old, the foot bone about 18,000 years old and the calf bone about 15,000 years old. See more on Japan Today 5 Feb 2010.
In China, the partial skeleton from Tianyuandong, northern China, is dated to ~ 40 ka, as is the partial cranium from Laibin, southern China. So these are comparable to the Niah skull.
In June 2012 archaeologists in Sri Lanka reported the discovery of a skeleton that is 37,000 years old. “Balangoda man” was found in a cave along with food items and tools.
In Aug 2012 a paper published in PNAS revealed the discovery (in 2009) of a partial human skull from a cave in north Laos, dated at 46,000 and 63,000 years old. This is older than the Niah skull. It also potentially changes the idea of how early humans migrated from Africa to Australia. In 2010 a complete human mandible was also found. These discoveries in Tam Pa Ling provide the first evidence for the presence of early modern humans in mainland Southeast Asia, at least by 46ka, and maybe 63ka. A paper was published in April 2015.
In July 2017 a paper was published in Nature saying that the earliest human occupation dates in Australia had been changed from 47,000 years to 65,000 years ago. So this could have a big implication on habitation dates for SE Asia.
In Oct 2015 it was announced that from 47 fossil human teeth found in a cave in south China, scientists now think Homo sapiens had gone into Asia earlier than first thought. The teeth were dated at 80,000 to 120,000 years old. This is the earliest evidence of modern humans outside of Africa. This also means humans were in Asia before going to Europe.
The cave is Fuyan Cave in Hunan province Daoxian county. Until this discovery it was thought that Homo sapiens hadn't gone to Asia until 50,000 years ago. Homo sapiens first appeared in east Africa about 200,000 years ago. See Nature.
Arrival in SE Asia
Scientists such as anthropologists and archaeologists have always wondered how the first people reached the islands of southeast Asia. Niah, on Borneo was inhabited 40,000-50,000 years ago, and Tabon Cave on the island of Palawan, southwest Philippines at roughly the same time (47 ± 11 ka). More recently the Luzon foot from Callao cave in the Philippines has been dated at 67,000 years old. It was found in 2007. This shows that people had settled on Luzon, the largest and northernmost major island in the Philippines, at least 67,000 years ago. And stone tools older than the Luzon foot bone have also been found recently on Sulawesi and Timor. However it is now not certain if the Luzon Foot fossils are actually Homo sapiens, read more here.
In 2017 a report in Nature describes "An early modern human presence in Sumatra 73,000–63,000 years ago" based on human teeth from Lida Ajer, a Sumatran Pleistocene cave. The cave is near Payakumbah village.
However Malaysia’s archaeological past is older than this (but is not directly cave related).
In Apr 2012 the media reported the discovery of a 235,000 year old Palaeolithic site in Sabah, found in 2003. If these dates are accurate, it would show that humans settled in Borneo much earlier than previously thought,.
General archaeology in Malaysia
Cave archaeology in Peninsular Malaysia started in the 1880’s, pioneered by scientists with an interest in geology. Gua Cha in Kelantan was one of the first sites dug, and revealed a Hoabinhian (10,000- 3,000 BC) occupation and burial site. Several caves in the same area along the Nenggiri and Galas rivers in ulu Kelantan have revealed archaeological relics. Perlis and Pahang are other states that also have caves of archaeological interest.
Caves in Sabah, at Bantuong, are known to have been occupied by Man from 17,000 years ago. Wooden coffins, dating to the 14th century have been found in many caves in Sabah. Balambangan Island off Kudat has limestone caves where 16,000 year old artefacts were found by researchers from the Malaysian Archaeological Research Centre (PPAM) of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in August 1997, see WWF
report. The Star mentioned Balambangan cave drawings may be Malaysia's oldest, but gave no date.
There are not many cave paintings in Malaysia. The oldest known only date back to about 2000 years (unconfirmed), at Gua Tambun, near Ipoh. They are not actually in a cave, but on a cliff face, and sadly nothing has been done to protect the drawings which are exposed to bright sun, monsoon rain, wind and humidity. The possibly Neolithic paintings were discovered in 1959 and first reports mention some 25-30 drawings of animals and people, but there are in fact a lot more. The paintings are red and orange in colour, and are made from haematite (ochre). In Jan 2009 some researchers from USM studied the site and the team erected scaffolding to access the paintings and one researcher used a polecam. They made some new discoveries including a number of ‘new’ motifs, resulting in a total count of just over 500 distinct rock art elements, spread over ten distinct panels, making Gua Tambun one of the largest rock art sites in Malaysia, if not the largest. A paper has been published but the age of the paintings is still not known. This research was part of a MA thesis. In May 2012 Gua Tambun was declared a national heritage. But the site was still not protected and suffered more vandalism in 2016.
In April 2012 The Star reported that the cave drawings at Balambangan Island "are believed to be the oldest in Malaysia”. I don't know the dates.
Other ochre paintings in southeast Asia include those at the famous Padah-Lin Cave in the Taunggyi district of Myanmar. They are Neolithic (maybe 11,000 years old). In Maros in Sulawesi, Indonesia, are the hand stencils and pig drawings in Leang Leang and other caves, dated by Glover to between c.31,000-20,000 BP. In southern Sumatra only one site is known to contain (Neolithic) paintings, Gua Harimau.
Thailand has several examples, especially along the Thai-Myanmar border, in Petchabuan Range in central Thailand and along the Mekong in Nakhon Sawan Province. In Mulu, Black Hand Cave (found 2010) contains black colour hand prints, but they are thought to be modern and probably graffiti, maybe by nest collectors. Black Hand is next to Stone Horse rear entrance.
Further away in China, 6,000-year-old coloured paintings and fingerprints were found in caves on Yabrai mountain in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. These Paleolithic paintings are believed to be painted with mixed dyes of ochre powder, animal blood and water. Painters may have used bone pipes to blow the dyes onto the cave walls. They are similiar to European Paleolithic cave paintings. The oldest paintings in Europe were said to be at Chauvet Cave, and in central Europe, Romania, at about 32,000 years. But in June 2012 many media reports stated that paintings in 11 Spanish caves have been redated and one is at least 40,800 years old. In Sept 2013 it was confirmed that "the paintings in the Altxerri cave system in Gipuzkoa, Spain, have been certified by experts as the oldest known in Europe. The paintings have been dated at 39,000 years old - 3,000 years older than those in the famous Altamira caves in Cantabria. The study was carried out by a team of scientists from the Universities of Cantabria, Burgos and Toulouse."
In Oct 2014 an important paper was published in Nature, revealing how the age of the cave paintings at Maros in Sulawesi, Indonesia are now said to be older than first thought. They have been redated and the hand stencils are now known to be at least 40,000 years old, and the babirusa has a minimum age of 35,400 years. This means they are now of a similiar age to those in Western Europe, which could change the ideas on evolution. See more on my blog. An article in The Smithsonian in Jan 2016 also writes that the rock art in Sulawesi may be as old as the ancient cave paintings in France and Spain, at least 35,400 years old.
However Africa claims the record for the oldest paintings and Nat. Geog. has an article on a 100,000 year old art workshop in Blombos Cave, S. Africa. Rock art in the Australian outback is quite well known. The oldest dates to 28,000 years (2012 news).
The famous paintings at the Painted Cave of Niah have been dated at about 1200 years. The paints were made from tree sap. Rock art was found in caves in eastern Sabah in 2007. There are charcoal drawings of animals and watercraft, and an engraved human figure and watercraft.
Across the Indonesian border in east Kalimantan, from around 2000 onwards, several caves were found containing rock art, much of it in the form of negative hand prints and overpainted hand stencils. Around 1,500 negative handprints have been found in 30 caves. Handprints are a common motif in prehistoric rock art around the world. But unlike hands discovered at sites in France, Australia, and elsewhere, many in Kalimantan caves are decorated with dots, dashes, and other patterns, the significance of which is yet unknown. In some designs the hands are linked to other hands, or to drawings of people or animals, by long curving lines. The paintings are ochre based. Ochre lumps up to 15 cm in diameter have been found in the caves along with anvils and mortars. It is thought that to create the design, the painter would place a hand on the wall, then spray it by mouth with pulverized pigments made of ochre.
The Kalimantan hand stencils are 6000 years old, although the oldest representations are older than the end of the Pleistocene, 10,000 years BP. Other caves were found in the 1990s also containing art - hand stencils, figures, lines and dots. It is interesting that the art is older and quite different from that found at Niah. However whereas Niah was inhabited around 40 or 50,000 years ago, the Kalimantan caves have only been occupied for around 10,000 years. See more on the Kalimantan art.
There are various cave sites in Peninsula Malaysia that have rock paintings, especially in Pahang, Perak and Kelantan. I've been exploring caves in Merapoh, Pahang, since 2012, and we have found a few sites with drawings, one example is Gua Seribu Cerita. As a result of our findings, Noel from SEAArch has done a blog on his thoughts about the drawings.
The Negrito aboriginal cave art at Lenggong is modern graffiti by comparison, only 100 years old. And there are a few more "modern" sites in the peninsula. But all these pale into insignificance compared to cave art at places such as Lascaux in France, and Altamira in northern Spain, which date back more than 30,000 years. In Australia, in the northern Kimberley region, rock art could date to the height of the last Ice Age - about 20-25,000 years ago. However evidence of Australian rock art stretches back 50,000 years.
Cave paintings are found in many places around the world, and questions have always been asked about what these paintings of animals, humans and symbols mean. Some of the paintings are done with a high degree of artistic ability. Experts have long debated the meaning of the rock art. Some say they were done by shamans (bomohs), others say they represent an early religion.
Cave paintings are generally dated by a technique known as uranium series dating. In Oct 2008 there was a lot of news in the international media about new ways to date cave paintings, resulting from work done by archaeologists at Bristol University in England. You can read more on Archaeology Briefs
Stone carvings and petroglyphs from caves don't seem to exist in Malaysia.
© Liz Price 2005 - 2017
Page last updated July 2017