Delving into Malaysia's Past

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Perak Man, Peninsular Malaysia’s oldest inhabitant, is well travelled, despite his great age of 11,000 years old. A few years ago he went to Japan for an exhibition, and in 2001 he visited Kuala Lumpur, where he was the star in an exhibition titled ‘Perak Man.’ Now he is having a well deserved rest back in his native Perak, where he is residing in the new Lenggong Museum. He is, after all, one of the most important inhabitants to have lived in Malaysia, because his bones survived to tell the tale.

Perak Man, found in 1991, is the only ancient and complete human skeleton that has been exhumed in Malaysia. The cave that was his final resting place is called Gua Gunung Runtuh, and is situated in Bukit Kepala Gajah (or Elephant’s Head Hill) in the Lenggong Valley in Ulu Perak. The skeleton has been dated at between 10 – 11,000 years old, which makes him a Stone Age man from the Palaeolithic period.

It is believed he was an important member of his tribe, judging by the way he was buried – in a foetal position surrounded by stone tools. He was about 157cm tall, and probably aged between 30 – 55-years old when he died. An older discovery is a 40,000-year old human skull found in Niah Cave in Sarawak in 1958. Since then, archaeologists have continued to make important finds in Niah that reveal a period of human activity in the cave dating around 50,000 years ago. However, Malaysia’s archaeological past is even older.

The earliest known site of human inhabitation in this region is the Kota Tampan area in Ulu Perak. Excavations, which began in 1938, revealed an undisturbed stone tool production area, and some 50,000 pieces of stone have been found and recorded. The workshop, attributed to a culture referred to as Tampanian, was initially dated at 30,000 years old, but this figure has now been revised to 75,000 years. More recently a team has been digging a site at Bukit Jawa, and this has been dated at 100,000 (maybe 200,000) years old – far older than the Kota Tampan workshop just 6km away. But all these findings are still very young compared to those from Africa, where the predecessors of the human species originated about 3 – 5 million years ago.

The Lenggong Valley is one of Peninsular Malaysia’s most important areas for archaeology, as excavations have revealed many traces of Malaysia’s prehistory. The town of Lenggong is situated some 100km North of Ipoh on the road between Kuala Kangsar and Grik. It is the site of the oldest known place of human activity in the Peninsula. Today it is still a rural area, with small kampungs surrounded by green vegetation and limestone hills. Lenggong can be likened to an open-air museum, and is home to legends, skeletons, cave drawings, and precious finds such as jewellery, pottery, weapons, and stone tools. Many of the caves in the Lenggong area have revealed evidence of ancient humans having lived and hunted in this area.

The Lenggong Archaeological Museum, also known as the Kota Tampan Archaeological Museum, opened in 2003. It exhibits artefacts excavated from the Kota Tampan area. They are housed in a large bright building and are divided into three categories covering the Kota Tampan Excavation Site Gallery, Lenggong Prehistoric Gallery, and the Human Civilisation Gallery.

Cave archaeology in Peninsular Malaysia started in the 1880s, pioneered by scientists with an interest in geology. Gua Cha in Kelantan was one of the first sites dug, and Niah Cave Niah Painted Cave Perak Man The Expat_19 revealed a Hoabinhian (10,000BC – 3,000BC) occupation and burial site. Caves in Sabah at Bantuong are known to have been occupied by humans from 17,000 years ago. Wooden coffins, dating to the 14th century, have been found in many caves in Sabah.

There are not many cave paintings in Malaysia. The oldest known only date back about 2000 years, at Gua Tambun near Ipoh. They are not actually in a cave, but on a cliff face, and sadly nothing has been done to protect the drawings. The famous paintings at the Painted Cave of Niah have been dated at about 1,200 years. The Negrito aboriginal cave art at Lenggong is modern graffiti by comparison, only 100 years old. But all these pale into insignificance compared to cave art at places such as Lascaux in France, which date back some 15,000 years.

Many people think of the Bujang Valley in Kedah as being one of the oldest sites in the country, but its history only stretches back about 1,500 years. Situated on the Southern foothills of Gunung Jerai, sheltered by tropical rain forest on the slopes above, it is a peaceful place, but one which echoes with tales of flourishing kingdoms and bustling trading ports. Artefacts found indicate that, from the 4th to 14th centuries, the Bujang Valley was the oldest centre of international and entrepot trade in Malaysia. Even in the 2nd century a highly civilised Malay kingdom existed there. The numerous artefacts uncovered in the Bujang Valley are proof that support this observation. More than 50 candis (or temple, generally referring to the ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia) have been found in this sprawling site. It is thought that tin mining started in Perak around 1,500 years ago. The tin was probably shipped to India in the 5th century, maybe through the Bujang Valley.

The Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum, opened in 1980, was the first archaeological site museum in Malaysia. As well as the many exhibits inside, you can walk around the candis outside. The display boards are labelled in English and Bahasa Malaysia.The National History Museum in KL, opposite Dataran Merdeka, is worth a visit. It features exhibits from the prehistoric era through to the present day. The archaeological section features a lot of the caves known to have been inhabited by early humans, and there is also a display on geology.


So it can be seen that Malaysia has an important archaeological past, and new finds are being made all the time. It is worth taking time off from the modern rat race where everyone is looking forward – take a break and think of the past. Go and see for yourself the places where ancient humans first roamed.

Source: The Expat March 2005 
This article was edited for
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