Extinct megafauna from Niah, Sarawak

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Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Lim Tze Tshen

Niah’s Great Cave and zooarchaeological record

THE Great Cave within Niah National Park is a veritable depository of prehistoric record in Borneo. Prehistoric humans had called the cave and the surrounding forests their home since at least 45,000 years ago until as recently as the Neolithic period.

At various entrances of the extensive Niah cave system (for example, the West Mouth, Gan Kira, and Lobang Angus), they left behind their long and unwritten history in the form of stone and bone artefacts, pottery sherds, paintings on cave walls, burials and associated decorative items, and even bones from the wild animals they once consumed as food, such as the commonly hunted Bearded Pig.

Figure 1: Bearded Pig. Front part of the lower jaw. On public display in Borneo Cultures Museum. Copyright, Lim Tze Tshen.

A long history of persistent zooarchaeological research on the non-human animal remains from the archaeological sites since the 1950s by Sarawak Museum teams has revealed a great diversity of wildlife living in and near Niah when prehistoric humans were foraging in the area. The ancient mammal fauna included some species that are no longer present in Borneo, while some others are now present only in certain parts of the island.

However, not all animal bone remains recovered from the Niah archaeological sites were ancient kitchen refuse (what most archaeologists called ‘midden’). Animals ecologically termed as ‘trogloxenes’ (cave visitors, such as bats and swiftlets) that habitually shelter in caves but depend on resources outside, and ‘troglophiles’ (cave lovers, for instance, leopard cats and owls) that may make use of caves as dens or places to search for foods but can live equally well outside, also were represented in the ancient bone remains.

Natural casualties from both these groups of animals also are of great interest to scientists since, if properly studied, they could be a good proxy for ancient environmental fluctuations – a source of knowledge rendered highly relevant in our current efforts to better understand how global and regional environmental change may affect us and the future generations.

Globally extinct

Remains of the still-living Sunda Pangolin were found in Niah together with a large-sized species, the Giant Pangolin.

Figure 2: Giant Pangolin. Thigh bone (upper) and upper arm bone (lower). Both specimens on public display in Borneo Cultures Museum. Copyright, Lim Tze Tshen.

Estimated to be around 3 metres in length – roughly 2.5 times bigger than the Sunda Pangolin – the Giant Pangolin is the only globally extinct species recorded from Niah. Skeletal remains from a single individual were recovered from one of the oldest excavated levels (circa 40,000-years-old), and it is likely that the species went extinct before the end of the Pleistocene period (around 10,000 years ago). Java is the only other place in the world where remains of the Giant Pangolin or its close relatives had been found, in deposits dated to be between around 800,000 to 700,000-years-old.

Gone from the island

The Clouded Leopard is the largest wild cat species in modern-day Borneo since no living tiger or leopard has been recorded from the island. Early excavations in Niah had produced the first evidence of tigers in prehistoric Borneo.

Figure 3: Tiger. A canine tooth from a young individual discovered in 1958. Copyright, Lim Tze Tshen.

Recent investigations had also added more materials from Niah. Together with similar findings from archaeological sites in Sabah and Palawan Island (southern Philippines), the Niah records proved beyond any reasonable doubt that this felid top predator had once roamed the forests of Borneo and adjacent areas. The rich vocabularies local Bornean communities use to name the tiger (for instance, ‘balang’ in Lun Bawang, ‘lejau’ in Kenyah, ‘li mo’nng’ in Bidayuh, and ‘lejo’ in Kayan) suggest that the animal may have a long history on the island.

Also present in the zooarchaeological record are two species of rhinoceros now extinct or thought to be extinct from Borneo – the Javan and Sumatran Rhinoceroses. For the prehistoric Niah people, the rhinoceros may have served more than mere culinary purposes – some isolated dental remains suggested that they might be valued objects (perhaps as charms), and one lower arm bone of Sumatran Rhinoceros was found associated with a human burial and seemed to have served as a “pillow” or object of offering to the deceased.

Bones of the Malayan Tapir, yet another large mammal with no living representatives in modern-day Borneo fauna, were found sporadically throughout the Niah archaeological deposits. Specimens shown in Figure 4 were recovered from Niah as long ago as in 1961, and the original field labels with important scientific information on them are still kept in very good condition. What excellent legacy early investigators at Niah had left behind for us today to continue on with meaningful research.

Figure 4: Tapir. Original field labels associated with toe and possible wrist bones discovered in 1961. Copyright, Lim Tze Tshen.

No longer in and near Niah

Remains of large wild cattle species are few as compared to those of other herbivores. Though there is only one species of wild cattle, the Banteng, in Borneo today, their range is limited only to certain parts of Sabah. The specific identity of the prehistoric Niah wild cattle is far from resolved. Could they represent species no longer present in Borneo, like the Gaur or Asian Water Buffalo? Only future research and further field excavations can tell.

Today, the Bornean Elephants occur only in central and eastern Sabah, with a small population in north Kalimantan. Scientists are still figuring out the origins of the living animals in Borneo. Two competing theories have been proposed: feral descendants of gift animals left in eastern Borneo by the Sultan of Sulu around 1750, or indigenous species descended from natural colonisation of Borneo since the geological time period called Pleistocene (beginning around 2.5 million years ago).

Once again, Niah provided the key piece of evidence crucial to the current debate. This small fragment from a cheek tooth of a young elephant (Figure 5) was unearthed as early as in 1958, but it went unnoticed and unrecognised for almost six long decades!

Figure 5: Elephant. Part of the cheek tooth from a young individual. Copyright, Lim Tze Tshen.

The re-discovery of this fascinating specimen in 2019 in one of the storage rooms of Sarawak Museum had finally produced the first evidence of the prehistoric Asian Elephant from any controlled excavation sites in Borneo. It also proved that elephants were once members of the indigenous megafauna of prehistoric Borneo.

The orangutan was one of the most commonly hunted species in Niah throughout the history when the area was occupied by prehistoric humans. But the great ape is no longer found in areas within a 200km radius of the national park.

Why is it so? It appears that prehistoric Niah hunters consistently targeted female and young orangutans – for good reasons, since adult males may be too dangerous for them to hunt.

Figure 6: Orangutan. Upper jaw fragment with two attached milk teeth from a young individual. Copyright, Lim Tze Tshen.

A prolonged hunting pressure of 45,000 years on certain groups of individuals (the breeding females and the invigorating young) may likely have caused a demographic collapse. In combination with other non-anthropogenic factors, this may have contributed to the ultimate demise of the population around Niah.

Significance of the Niah zooarchaeological record

Thanks to the continuous work of generations of scientists, we now know that about 91 different forms of mammals, ranging in size from the large elephant to the smaller shrews, are represented in the Niah zooarchaeological record. In this sense, Niah is a record holder for palaeontological and archaeological sites in Borneo. Careful studies of the animal bones provide major re-interpretation of regional mammalian biogeographical distribution, such as in the case for the Malayan tapir and tiger. Some discoveries, like the Giant Pangolin, represent significant early contributions by Sarawak to the global scientific community.

Many of the mammals we know from prehistoric Niah were either forest-dependent (for example, civets and deer) or forest-obligate (gibbons and flying squirrels) species. Some of them continue to survive in the national park today, like the Plain Pygmy Squirrel, but others succumbed or become globally threatened. The deep past of Niah provides the (prehistoric) food for thought to you and me alike: how do we use our wisdom to better protect our biodiversity heritage and our planet?

Lim Tze Tshen is a zooarchaeologist and vertebrate palaeontologist. Formerly attached to the Sarawak Museum as a research fellow and guest curator (zooarchaeology) of the Sarawak Museum Campus Project & Heritage Trail (2019-2020). He is now based in the Geology Department, Universiti Malaya, with current research focuses on the evolution of southeast Asian Quaternary mammal fauna. He is also president of the Paleontological Society of Malaysia (PaleoSOM).

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.