Niah Cave skeletal relics finally home

Abdul Karim and permanent secretary to the Ministry Hii Chang Kee overjoy to receive the ancient human remains of Niah Cave.

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By Karen Bong

KUCHING, March 7: Only a certain portion of the ancient human remains from Niah Cave, which have finally arrived home safely today after five decades abroad, will be exhibited at the Sarawak Natural History Museum which is currently being refurbished and expected to be reopened in December this year.

Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Datuk Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah revealed this after receiving three of five cargo boxes of the Niah Cave collection at the MasCargo facility this morning.

“It is a grand homecoming for them. We are truly grateful that they finally come home to Sarawak.

“They can be considered our very great ancestor. These human remains are more than 4,000 years old, if not mistaken, way before Christ and prophet Muhammad. They are ancestors to all of Sarawakians,” he told reporters.

Abdul Karim believed that the Sarawak Natural History Museum, which is undergoing a total revamp, was a more proper place to display the Niah Cave collection which comprised of 122 bone fragments.

“I believe it will be displayed at the Sarawak Natural History Museum as the new Sarawak Museum Campus was more for heritage and culture.

“A portion will be displayed because there are too many bone fragments and there won’t be enough space to display the entire collection in the museum,” he said.

He added that the Natural History Museum, which has been undergoing major refurbishment works since September 2017, is expected to be launched open in December this year barring interruptions.

“It is a very old building (built in 1891) so the refurbishment works will take a lot of time. Not only that, preparing the vast collection of natural history for display will also take time,” he said.

Abdul Karim shared that a section will be dedicated for the Niah Cave collection and complemented with photographs, a miniature Niah Cave and possibly a replica of the Niah man’s face.

“I believe these ancient human remains will be an attraction to the museum. We are trying to create a replica of the Niah man as now we have its skull that is believed to be 40,000 years old.

“The skull and jaw remains was discovered in later excavations by University of New South Wales. As the condition of the skull was quite good, we are trying to create a replica of the man’s face to see how our ancestor looks like before,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the collection came from Niah Cave excavations by Tom and Barbara Harrisson from 1947 to 1967, which found numerous stone and bone tools, shells and pottery as well as 262 human burials dating from 40,000 to 1,000 years ago.

Of the burials, 122 bone fragments were shipped to Nevada in 1966-67 to be studied by physical anthropologists and archaeologists Shelaigh and Richard Brooks. The collection was brought to University of Nevada in Las Vegas (UNLV) after their retirement.

The artefacts from the Niah Cave showed that it was one of the oldest dwelling places of modern humans in the region.

According to reports, Harrisson discovered the skull of a young girl in 1958 which he dated to around 39,000 years old.

This became the earliest evidence for the presence of modern man or Homo sapiens in South-East Asia. Later research also showed that the skull could be dated to 42,000 years old.

Such important discovery catapulted Sarawak onto the paleontological map of the world.

In 2016, a negotiation was made to bring back the remains and by March 8, 2017, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed to transfer the collection from Florida to Malaysia. —DayakDaily

Abdul Karim (fourth left) together with staff from Sarawak Tourism Board (STB), Sarawak Musuem Campus, Custom Department and Health Department in a group photo after receiving the human remains of Niah Cave.
A closer look at the some of the bone fragments from Niah Cave which made it home to Sarawak safely.
Staff of MasCargo unscrewing the front cover of the cargo box.