Latest archaeological findings rewrite history of Niah Caves

Curneo pointing to a map of Sarawak.

By Wilfred Pilo

KUCHING, Oct 22: The latest archaeological findings at Trader’s Cave in the vicinity of Niah Cave in Miri has provided significant evidence as to when modern humans or homo sapiens arrived in the South East Asia region from Africa.

Associate Professor Dr Darren Curneo of the University of South Wales, Sydney, who specialises in Palaeoanthropology and Archaeology, said the findings were critical to provide sufficient evidence for the international archaeologist community to have a big debate on this subject.

“The archaeology work in Trader’s Cave told us that people from Africa came here about 65,000 years ago. From our work, we knew at that time the sea level was lower than today, the coastline was probably 30km away from Niah Cave and the temperature globally was about 5 degrees colder than it is today.

Bone fragments that could be a rib and fibula found in Trader’s Cave.

“So, it was a very different environment that these people were living in, compared to the warm period today, but the evidence is there for us to excavate,’ he told reporters after giving a talk titled ‘Next Chapter in the History of Niah Caves 65,000-year-old Humans Trader’s Cave’ at the Sarawak Museum Department here.

Curneo revealed they now had a “very good sense” of the time when people first settled in this area.

“We also have a very good sense of what their diet was like as these people were eating marine-based food. We also have a sense of their culture, how rich and sophisticated their culture was as they were producing very fine tools. Tools that were very small pieces of rock that were sharpened and glued on to bones or wood to make barbs, spears and, maybe, even arrows,” he added.

Curneo said prehistoric people had very sophisticated hunting technology and led very sophisticated cultural lives.

Microlithic tools affixed to sticks or wood to serve as weapons to hunt for animals.
Fragments of microlithic tools found in Trader’s Cave.

These prehistoric people dwelled and traded in the Niah Cave as it is sheltered and protected them from the rain, animals and other things.

“The cave is not only big, beautiful and has a cathedral-like quality, but is also a spiritual place,” he said.

Curneo said he was happy with their findings, but it was still early days in their project. However, the evidence is very clear and lies beyond the West Mouth region of the cave.

“For a long time, the West Mouth of Niah Cave has been an iconic archaeological site internationally. It is always held up as one of those sites that provide very early evidence of the first prehistoric people in this area.

“But Trader’s Cave now pushes our archaeology work further back by more than 25,000 years.

“We have a couple more field seasons, a lot more work to do, but the evidence is clear. I am very certain that our finding is absolute,” he said.

Ipoi (left) presents a souvenir to Curneo after his talk.

Curneo added that starting March next year, they would do a detailed field season lasting eight weeks.

“So far, we have done two short field seasons of 3 to 3-1/2 weeks. We hope to spend more time and get more evidence next year,” he said.

Curneo is not working alone here. He has the backing of a scientific team of about 15 people, and at any one time, between 20 and 25 people could be at the site doing excavating and screening work.

“It is a very large group, very detailed and time-consuming work as there are a lot of bodies on site,” he revealed.

Representatives from Universiti Sains Malaysia, Sarawak Museum Department, Sarawak Forestry Department and other local universities were also involved to ensure there was local participation.

“This project was always about working in partnership with the local people and also about training up the next generation of Malaysian archaeologists. We would like Malaysian archaeologists to be among the world’s best,” he said.

Also present at the talk was Sarawak Museum director Ipoi Datan. — DayakDaily