New pre-history timeline discovered for Borneo

Dr Curneo gives a talk on ‘Next Chapter in the history of Niah Caves: 65,000 year old humans Trader’s Cave’ at Sarawak Museum office here today.

KUCHING: Human civilisation has been established to exist as far back as 65,000 years ago at Niah Caves complex, Sarawak – vastly exceeding the previous estimate of 35,000 years following the initial discovery of the ‘Deep Skull lady’ at the cave complex.

Discovered in the Niah Caves back in 1958, the ‘Deep Skull lady’ are remains of a female human skull that was ascribed an age of about 35,000 years, making it one of the oldest modern humans discovered in South-East Asia.

The initial discover placed Niah Caves as a key location globally in human prehistory but new discoveries are now showcasing that human civilisation predates further back.

This new timeline of 65,000 years was concluded when five pieces of microlithic tools that were aged 65,000 years old and a human skull that was aged 55,000 years old were discovered at part of the Niah Saves complex, Trader cave, during excavation work.

Established in 2017, the excavation work was a joint project between the Sarawak Museum Department and University of New South Wales to search for new archaeological evidence for early modern humans at the Traders Cave.

University of New South Wales associate professor specialising in paleoanthropology and archaeology Dr Darren Curnoe explained that the microlithic tools were usually used by early humans to carry out their life activities.

“Small pieces of rocks were sharpened and glued onto bones and woods to make barbs, spears and maybe even arrows,” he said during a talk at Sarawak Museum office here today.

He added that the early humans living at the cave had a very sophisticated hunting technology and rich cultural life.

The new discovery has now placed Trader Cave as the oldest archaeological site in Borneo and the oldest archaeological site with human remains in Malaysia.

The cave also provided the earliest reliably date arrival time for modern human – also known as Homo sapiens – in Southeast Asia.

When asked on future excavation works at the site, Dr Curneo said that his team would be returning to Niah Cave in February and March next year for further studies.

Curnoe will be leading a scientist team of about 15 people and another team of 20 to 25 people that will be tasked with other archaeology works at the site.

The field season will last eight weeks instead of the usual three and a half week.

Local talents from Penang University Sains Malaysia, Sarawak Museum, Sarawak Forestry Department and local universities have already been approached to be a part of the next field work at the Trader Cave.

“We will always work in partnership with local people and training up the next generation of Malaysian archaeologist to be among the world’s best.”

The fieldwork was funded by Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, University of New South Wales, Sarawak Museum Department, Nanjing University and Scarp Archaeology.

Dr Curnoe has been working in collaboration with the Sarawak Museum Department since 2011 – focusing on reconstructing the timing of the initial settlement of Southeast Asia through to Australia by the earliest modern humans from Africa.

He has also carried out research into early humans in many other countries such as Australia, Kenya, China and South Africa for the past 20 years.

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