Niah National Park Background – Archaeology & Prehistory

Original Digs – 1950s-1960s

Niah was originally excavated in the late 1950s by a team lead by the brilliant, dynamic (and apparently infuriating) Director of the Sarawak Museum, Tom Harrisson. (Harrisson was an extraordinary character – see Further Reading for books by and about him.) Tom’s wife Barbara also played a significant role, and continued the excavations for 5 years after Tom finished.

Critical to the success of the digs (explicitly acknowledged by the Harrissons) was the skilled team of Malay assistants, who had received training during excavations of historical sites around Santubong, near Kuching. Then, as now, funding problems were also an issue – it is unlikely that the original digs would have taken place without the support and sponsorship of Shell Oil and the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon.

The most important discovery of the original excavations was a human skull, the so-called ‘Deep Skull’, which is about 43,000-44,000 years old. This is the earliest evidence of modern man in Southeast Asia, and a major piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the pattern of the peopling of Australasia. (The find caused a sensation at the time – no-one believed Southeast Asia to have been inhabited by modern man that long ago.) The digs also showed that the cave has been used on-and-off by humans (with differing degrees of intensity) ever since then. The archaeological record is also extremely rich, and provides insights into the way of life (and trade patterns) of the cave’s inhabitants and users, and how they changed over the millennia.

For example, 39 human burials dating from the period 20,000 years ago to 4,000 years ago were uncovered, as well as 127 dating from the period 4,000 to 2,000 years ago. Other burials date from as recently as the 1400s. These sequences show the development of more complex and sophisticated societies over time. The earlier burials were very plain, with remains of crude stone tools found nearby. Much later, bone ornaments and crude pots appeared. These gave way to traded porcelain, glass beads, bronze and iron tools, and locally made carved hornbill-ivory ornaments.

More ‘mundane’ finds in the caves include discarded food scraps – animal bones, shell middens, charcoal, pollen and starch grains. These (and their sequences) provide an insight into the diet of the cave inhabitants, and environment in which they lived, and how these too changed over time.

The animal bones found in the cave are also interesting – they provide evidence of long-extinct animals such as giant pangolins and giant wild pigs, as well as animals which are no longer found anywhere near Niah – including tapir and orang-utan. The bone record also indicates that the animals around the cave grew smaller over time. This could be a result of environmental changes; or perhaps a consequence of hunting pressures – much in the same way that cod and tuna caught now are much smaller than they were 100 years ago.


Ongoing Research

In the 1970s, a Malaysian team led by Dr Zuraina Majid also did some important excavations at Niah, clarifying and building on work done by the Harrisons.

More recently, cver the four years 2000-2003, a large interdisciplinary team of experts (almost 40 all up!) returned to Niah, to re-investigate the old (Harrisson) digs. Some of their research is ongoing. The purpose of this new research is to:

  • apply new techniques to dating methods (these have greatly improved since Harrisson’s time);
  • clarify the sequence (and dates) of the objects and remains uncovered by the Harrisons – and linking this data with the archival information from the original digs; and
  • investigate the climactic and environmental context of the objects and remains, and changes in the climate and environment.

In doing this, the researchers hope to clarify:

  • the timing of human colonisation of Borneo (and Southeast Asia – and possibly also Australia);
  • how the original inhabitants survived in the rainforest, what their environment was like (and how it changed), and what they ate;
  • the timing of the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture (including the introduction of rice); and
  • the timing and impact of trade and the introduction of metallurgy

These recent re-excavations and research have already made a number of important discoveries and contributions, including confirming the age of the Deep Skull – which was found to be 3-4,000 years older than Harrisson’s original estimate using the then new science of radiocarbon dating. The finding of each of the four years’ digs have been summarised in the following year’s Sarawak Museum Journal (so the final one for 2003 will only appear in 2004), but it is likely that it will be some time before all of the research and findings have been analysed and compiled.