Friday, December 15, 2017

Evidence of early humans found in the jungles of Borneo

I recently led a team excavating at one of the most iconic archaeological locations in Southeast Asia, Niah Caves in Malaysia.

Over a period of three weeks, we dug through what we believe to be around 20,000 years of human history. We uncovered several human bones, the remains of large mammals (probably deer and wild cattle) and marine oyster shells indicating a period of seafood meals. Stone tools and charred rocks were also unearthed.

It was exciting and a little bit daunting to be digging at Niah Caves, given its place in both the history of archaeology and more broadly of humankind.

Famous for head hunters

Niah Caves National Park is located in the eastern part of Sarawak, a state of Malaysia that hugs the northern coastal strip of the island of Borneo.

Borneo straddles the equator, and is covered mostly by dense tropical rainforest. It’s home to a remarkable variety of wildlife, including the endangered orangutan.

Sarawak also has a rich cultural heritage with almost 40 indigenous linguistic or cultural groups living there. It is an island that was famous until the 1970s for its head hunters.

It’s also the place where Alfred Wallace, credited by history as the discoverer of evolution by means of natural selection, developed his ideas during the nineteenth century.

Sarawak also has an extraordinary history of human occupation. This stretches back at least 46,000 years ago, soon after the earliest modern humans settled the region after they made their long journey out of Africa.

Borneo is the island where these early people began island hopping across Southeast Asia and eventually settling New Guinea and Australia, making it crucial also to understanding ancient human history across the Australasian region.

Incredible caves

The massive Niah Caves complex sits within a large limestone hill in the centre of the national park. There are 21 caves in the main cave network with six large entrances or cave mouths. The largest cave is the West Mouth (Lobang Kualar) which is more than 60 metres high in parts.

The chambers of Niah Caves reverberate with the sounds of bats and birds known as swiftlets, which seem to fill almost every nook and cranny they have to offer. The swiftlets make highly sought after bird nests, used for traditional Chinese medicine and to make bird’s nest soup.

These nests are collected and traded each day by local Punan men, who scale tens of metres into the highest ceilings of the cave climbing wooden poles without safety harnesses, risking their lives in the process.

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