The Archaeological Heritage of Niah National Park’s Caves Complex, Sarawak, Malaysia
Permanent Delegation of Malaysia to UNESCO
State of Sarawak, Miri Division, Niah Sub-district
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The Niah Caves is located in Island Southeast Asia (tropical islands lying in between mainland East Asia and Taiwan to the northwest and Australia and New Guinea to the southeast) which is one of the most organically diverse regions in the world, where 25 biodiversity hotspots could be found (Gower et. al., 2012). The caves comprise a series of colossal interconnected caverns and numerous smaller caves, located in the Gunung Subis massif about 15km. inland from the north Borneo coast.The inundation of the Sunda shelf resulting from the onset of global warming in the Terminal Pleistocene had created a landscape surrounding Niah Caves that is made up of tidal swamp forest and high-canopy closed rainforest (Barker, 2011). Located about 65 km. South South-West of Miri city, Niah Caves is situated in a National Park measuring 3,139 hectares. The site is bordered on three sides by rivers in which Sungai Niah is the major waterway along the western boundary. Its tributary, Sungai Tangap, forms the eastern boundary and another tributary, Sungai Sekaloh, borders the Park from the south. Progressive erosion and slips from the cliff faces created boulder-strewn talus slopes at the base of some of the outcrops and the result of these processes had created a river-fringed area of tropical rainforest comprising of two distinctive forest types - tidal swamp forest and high-canopy closed rainforest. Between the limestone outcrops, deep gorges and gullies have been gradually vegetated by specialised mixed dipterocarp flora that reflects the effects of torrential water flows from the outcrops. Pollen records suggest that this region of Borneo was impacted after 50kya by alternating phases of cool dry montane forest and grassland with warmer phases when closed canopy lowland rainforest was present although the rainforest never disappeared entirely from the region (Hunt et al. 2012). After many fluctuations in vegetation cover, post-glacial lowland rainforest began to dominate by 11.5kya and remained intact until today.
Recognising the archaeological and cultural significance of the area, the Niah Caves Complex was declared a historical monument and site under the Antiquities Ordinance [Cap. 134 (1958 Ed.)] in 1972. Subsequently in November 1974, the limestone outcrop and forest margin of Gunung Subis was gazetted as Niah National Park, under the National Parks Ordinance [Cap. 127 (1958 Ed.)]. In 1994, all those parcels of land situated at Pangkalan Lobang and the Niah Caves described as lots Nos. 4, 5, 6 and 7 Block 13 Niah land District and Lot 244 Niah Land District declared as historical monuments and sites in 1972 was included as part of the Niah National Park. The designation of the area as a National Park had two primary objectives. Firstly, it was to provide protection for the area’s unique combination of limestone hills, lowland dipterocarp forests and cave systems. Second and more importantly, it was to protect the globally significant prehistoric remnants in the caves comprising wall paintings, wooden boat shaped coffins, and the site of a Palaeolithic human skull which is at least 40,000 years old.
Archaeologically, the massive Niah caves complex is of international interest given that it is one of the few places in Southeast Asia with evidence of continuous human occupation during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene (Barker et al., 2002). The acknowledgment of the significance of Niah Caves, as a site of international importance goes back to 1864 when A.R Wallace reported to Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley the potential of the caves - as a site that was well worth investigating for evidence of early human fossils (Harrisson 1958, Zuraina Majid, 1982). Huxley subsequently organised the first European expedition to Niah Caves which was led by Alfred Everett in 1878-79 that did not bear significant findings. After a lull of 75 years, Tom Harrisson, who was then the curator of the Sarawak Museum organised the first archaeological digs at Niah Caves in 1954. Together with his wife, Barbara Harrison, the excavations ran for 13 years until 1967, digging in several of the caves in the Niah Caves Complex and the adjacent areas.
The bone assemblage from the excavations led by the Harrissons comprised around 750,000 fragments, making it one of the largest Late Pleistocene and early Holocene assemblage of archaeological vertebrate remains in Southeast Asia. The most renowned discovery was the ‘Deep Skull’ in 1958, which is a partial human skull from the deepest part of the West Mouth excavation, the so-called ‘Hell Trench’ due to the hot weather conditions the excavation team had to endure. Comparisons with other hominid crania proved that ‘Deep Skull’ was that of an anatomically modern human (Brothwell, 1960; Krigbaum & Datan, 1999, 2005). Charcoal samples taken from close to the skull returned dates of 35 000 and 40 000 bp, making it at the time the oldest authenticated modern human remains outside Africa.
In addition, the discoveries in the West Mouth of Niah Caves included 25 human burials dating to the Early Holocene, and over 200 burials with Neolithic material culture, comprising respectively the largest Mesolithic and Neolithic cemeteries in Island Southeast Asia (Barker et.al, 2011). Specifically, the main cave network consists of 21 caves with six large entrances or cave mouths surrounding a large limestone hill in the middle. The largest cave is the West Mouth (Lobang Kuala) which is more than 60 meters high in part - where ‘Deep Skull’ was discovered. Painted Cave is another significant cave known for its prehistoric rock paintings and burial ships which was discovered by Barbara Harrisson in 1958 and contained 128 small red-sized paintings on the cave walls. The paintings were made using hematite and dye material from plants and depict anthropomorphs standing on what appear to be boats or ships.
In addition to the archaeological significance of Niah Caves, its cultural features are equally compelling. In essence the caves have continuously provided a sustainable source of livelihood for its indigenous community. Within the chambers of the caves are millions of bats and swiftlets which populate the nooks and crannies of the caves collection. The swiftlet population of Niah is predominantly the Black-nest Swiftlet, Aerodramus maximus. The swiftlets make highly sought-after bird nests which are used for traditional Chinese medicine and to make birds’ nest soup. These nests are collected and traded by climbers who scale great heights into the highest ceilings of the cave using wooden poles without safety harnesses hence risking their lives in the process. The Niah Caves was once home to the Penan tribe who were the original inhabitants of the area, and acknowledged to have ancestry going back to more than 60,000 years. Furthermore, the Penan were believed to have been bird nest collectors since the early 1800s, and archaeological findings suggest that there might have been harvesting activity as far back as the T’ang dynasty (in China) between 618 – 907 - implying that international trade for bird nests products might had existed since this period (Beavit, 1992). Up till the 1960’s, the Penans were the sole harvester of the nests for shipping to Singapore and other harbours for processing and export. When it was the harvesting season, the climbers and collectors stayed in Traders Cave, a smaller cave on the way to the main entrance to the Niah Caves in order to not disturb the birds. The buyers came here to weigh and buy nests from the collectors. By and large, the traditional harvest of Niah’s nests was sustainable, and was governed by Penan social and cultural constraints (Harrisson and Jamuh 1956; Medway 1957; Sandin 1958; Earl of Cranbrook 1984). The Penans followed the principle of ‘Take only what you need to avoid overharvesting thus ensuring an abundant supply of resources for the future. The most important aspect of Penan management of these resources is the traditional action of molong, meaning preserving. Niah Caves is also regarded as a sacred natural site by the surrounding indigenous communities. One of the caves is believed to be the remnants of a former village which was flooded due to a breach of taboos that affected their reverence for the sacred natural site (Husain, 1958; Sandin, 1958). The cave was believed to be inhabited by various spirits, including some of the most important Penan heroes. It was the object of numerous taboos as well as important annual rituals aimed at securing peace, fertility and good luck. As part of the local belief, a ritual called semah used to be performed annually to appease the spirits of the caves and to ask them to protect the birds’ nest and guano collectors working in the caves. It is considered a Penan ritual, to be performed every year before the opening of the first formal harvest season in April. A spiritual medium (dayung), who has exclusive knowledge of the names of the spirits and can perform the chanting, conducts the ritual. The Penan participated in and monitored all aspects of the harvest, making collective decisions and carefully sanctioning any infringements of acceptable practice (Earl of Cranbrook 1984). As the oldest residents of the area, the Penans held most of the birds’ nest collection rights. Out of their reverence for the spirits in the caves, Niah Caves had been traditionally protected even before it was gazetted as a historical monument and site under the Antiquities Ordinance [Cap. 134 (1958 Ed.)].
An interesting development in the history of archaeological excavations in the Niah Cave Complex took place between 2000 and 2003 during which a series of short field excavations were undertaken by an international team of archaeologists and environmental scientists. Under the leadership of Prof. Graeme Barker from the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with the Sarawak State Government, the Niah Cave Project (NCP) was initiated to re-investigate the remnant archaeology in the Niah Cave entrances. From on-site observations, laboratory research on materials from the fieldwork, and reference to the written and photographic archives, new 14C dates anchored the stratigraphy to an absolute chronology, confirmed a Late Pleistocene age for the ‘Deep Skull’ comparable to that proposed by T. Harrisson, and demonstrated that intermittent human habitation of the caves could be traced back to at least c. 45,000 bp (Barker et al., 2007; Higham et al., 2009). The project was also able to unravel some of the complexities of the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene habitations of the cave entrances and the Neolithic and Metal Age burial activity.
The most recent excavation programme at Niah Caves builds on its archaeological significance in Island South-East Asia. Starting from November 2017, another international team led by Prof. Darren Curnoe from the University of New South Wales, Australia began a new phase of archaeological research at Niah Caves by focusing specifically on Trader’s Cave. This on-going research discovered a new timeline as they uncovered five pieces of microlithic tools aged 65,000 years as well as a human skull aged 55,000 years. The new discoveries suggest that human pre-history has been established to have existed about 65,000 years ago in the Niah Caves system, exceeding the previous estimate of 45,000 years. The research is still ongoing, albeit temporarily put on hold due to Covid-19, and the new findings are contributing to a better understanding of the Southern Dispersal Route and human migration out of Africa in general (Curnoe, 2018)– a theory that an early group of modern human beings left Africa between 130,000-70,000 years ago. This recent discovery could have substantial implications towards revisiting and rewriting the history of the Southern Dispersal Route.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
In terms of archaeological contribution, the Niah Cave Complex is of international significance given that it is one of the most important places in Southeast Asia with evidence of continuous human occupation during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene. In addition, the discoveries in the West Mouth of Niah Caves, which included 25 human burials dating to the Early Holocene and over 200 burials with Neolithic material culture, are respectively the largest Mesolithic and Neolithic cemeteries in Island Southeast Asia.
From the wider perspective the Niah Caves goes beyond the discovery of the globally significant archaeological artefacts. From a global standpoint, numerous eminent archaeologists and anthropologists believe the site contains some of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia in relation to the Southern Dispersal Route as well as the interaction of prehistoric people with the environment and surrounding which has led to the establishment of cultural tradition in managing and stewardship of indigenous tree crop resulted from experiments and experiences.
Criterion (iii): The Niah Caves Project provided fresh evidence of the foraging-farming transition that further support the growing number of scholars arguing against the Neolithic/Austronesian colonisation model for agricultural origins in Island Southeast Asia. The NCP also provided evidence to support the view that indigenous tree crops were managed or domesticated in some form or another long before the incorporation of domestic rice, pigs, and dogs into local subsistence systems (Gosden 1995; Latinis 2000; Terrell and Welsch 1997; Yen 1995). In this light the NCP posited that the eventual transformation to rice farming in Island Southeast Asia was not brought by the acquisition of new resources or the sudden arrival of new people. Instead, the evidence that surfaced from the Niah Caves Projects suggest that the transition from foraging to farming might have been more the culmination of a long process of experimentation and adaptation to the rainforest environment by the indigenous forager populations reaching back into the Pleistocene.
The excavations by the Harrissons and the Niah Caves Projects had shown that the transition from foraging to farming was likely to be represented in the stratification preserved in the Niah Caves, especially the skeletal remains of Late Pleistocene-early Holocene Humans, which are exceptionally rare in Southeast Asia. In essence the Niah Caves provides the ideal opportunity and setting for a better understanding of the foraging-farming transitions in a non-linear way to reflect its complexities.
Research at Niah Caves had also revealed that the foraging-farming transitions had developed complex human-rainforest interactions. There is widespread evidence in the Niah Caves of forest disturbance that began more than 50,000 years ago for the exchange of technology, animals, plants, and genes, and for forms of food production based on the manipulation and management of plants that led to an indigenous form of stewardship that is reflected in the Penan’s molong or resource management system (Barker, et. al, 2017).
Furthermore, the human-rainforest interactions had led to an indigenous form of stewardship that is reflected in the Penan’s molong or resource management system associated with the harvesting of bird’s nests in the caves that could be traced as far back as the T’ang dynasty in China (618 – 907). The molong system introduced by the Penan involved the respect for carrying capacity (“Take only what you need”, collective decision-making and punitive measures for infringement resonates with the principles of sustainable development and has many lessons for contemporary resource management in the context of human-rainforest interactions. The application of molong by the indigenous Penans and the sepah ritual reflects the reverence and traditional protection for the Niah Caves as a sacred natural site that also supports the Asian development philosophy of harmony between humans and nature (Hamzah et. al, 2013).
Criterion (viii): The inundation of the Sunda shelf resulting from the onset of global warming in the Terminal Pleistocene had created a landscape surrounding Niah Caves that is made up of tidal swamp forest and high-canopy closed rainforest.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
The archaeological sites in Niah are authentic and have not been unduly modified or altered from their original physical setting and landscape. The deposits contained therein, and the materials recovered from previous excavations are part of the unique heritage of Sarawak and are testimony to the long-term prehistory on the island of Borneo.
Knowledge of the ancient inhabitants of Niah, their culture and relationship to the landscape comes primarily from archaeological investigations and excavations in the caves within the massif, which are still largely in their original condition – a rarity in Southeast Asia. The rich archaeological resources are predominantly midden accumulations containing shells, animal bones, stone tools, hearths, corded-ware pottery and occasionally human remains. The sites are yielding vivid paleo-environmental records from analysis of pollen, seeds and plant tissue, from fauna, and from geomorphic evidence of ancient shorelines. These studies are supported by sophisticated modern techniques such as geo-chemical analysis of plant carbon isotopes and lipids, and shell oxygen isotopes, and the pioneering use in Southeast Asia of LiDAR (Light Distancing and Ranging) to create millimetre-accurate images of cave sites. All materials are professionally plotted, collected, catalogued, stored and analysed. The results of studies have been communicated through an impressive portfolio of published scientific papers, and are also reported in a definitive monograph on human adaptation in the Asian Palaeolithic.
The property is of sufficient size and scope to encompass almost the entire limestone massif, with a full range of classic tower-karst land forms and associated geomorphic processes. All caves and other sites known to be of archaeological significance are included. The very rugged topography has generally isolated the property from intensive occupation and utilisation, and much of its interior remains in a natural state. Within the extensive natural areas of the property there are no structures that obstruct the scenery or detract from the aesthetic appeal. Occupied areas are mainly small traditional dwellings for the trading activities in the Trader’s Cave. The greater part of the property is enclosed within three officially designated protected areas, and contains a number of other sites protected by Government Decree. A large national park acting as the buffer zone surrounds the caves complex and is designed to protect it from external impacts.
Niah National Park is a relatively small property that supports a resident population and is host to a large and growing number of visitors. Close monitoring, strict regulations and careful management will be required in the long term to avoid pressures and threats from urban expansion, and plantation, resource use, village growth and excessive tourist infrastructure and use, and service development. These are among the key issues that have been given priority attention in the existing Conservation Management Plan and the Tourism Management Plan which is currently being prepared.
Comparison with other similar properties
Comparative Study 1, Trang An Landscape Complex, Vietnam
Situated near the southern margin of the Red River Delta, the Trang An Landscape Complex is a spectacular landscape of limestone karst peaks permeated with valleys, many of them partly submerged and surrounded by steep, almost vertical cliffs. Exploration of caves at different altitudes had revealed archaeological traces of human activity over a continuous period of more than 30,000 years. They illustrate the occupation of these mountains by seasonal hunter-gatherers and how they adapted to major climatic and environmental changes, especially the repeated inundation of the landscape by the sea after the last ice age. The story of human occupation continues through the Neolithic and Bronze Ages to the historical era. Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Viet Nam, was strategically established here in the 10th and 11th centuries AD. The property also contains temples, pagodas, paddy-fields and small villages.
Located within Ninh Binh Province of North Vietnam near the southern margin of the Red River Delta, the Trang An Landscape Complex (Trang An) is a mixed cultural and natural property contained mostly within three protected areas; the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, the Trang An-Tam Coc-Bich Dong Scenic Landscape, and the Hoa Lu Special-Use Forest. The property covers 6,226 hectares within the Trang An limestone massif, and is surrounded by a buffer zone of 6,026 hectares, mostly rural land with rice paddy fields. There are about 14,000 residents, the majority of whom are families involved in subsistence agriculture, but much of the property is uninhabited and in a natural state.
Trang An is of global significance as an outstanding humid tropical tower-karst landscape in the final stages of geomorphic evolution. It is composed of a variety of classical karst cones and towers and a network of enclosed depressions connected by an intricate system of subterranean waterways, some of which are navigable by small boats. The area is unique in having been invaded by the sea several times in the recent geological past but is now emergent on land. The blend of towering mountains draped in natural rain forest, with large internal basins and narrow cave passages containing quietly flowing waters, creates an extraordinarily beautiful and tranquil landscape.
Archaeological deposits in the caves reveal a regionally significant, continuous sequence of human occupation and utilisation spanning more than 30,000 years. There is convincing evidence showing how early human groups adapted to changing landscapes in the massif, including some of the most extreme climatic and environmental changes in the planet’s recent history.
Compared to the Trang An Landscape Complex World Heritage Site, the Niah Caves Complex and Niah National Park is a more outstanding locale within Southeast Asia as it is much older and the archaeological findings in Niah Caves are more intact. The Niah Caves Complex is is being protected by a vast tropical national park.
Comparative Study 2, Ban Chiang Archaeological Site
Ban Chiang is considered the most important prehistoric settlement so far discovered in Southeast Asia. It marks an important stage in human cultural, social and technological evolution. The site presents the earliest evidence of farming in the region and of the manufacture and use of metals.
The Ban Chiang Archaeological Site is a large, prehistoric earthen mound located in an agricultural area in the Ban Chiang Sub-district, Nong Han District of Udon Thani Province in northeast Thailand, within the watershed of the Mekong River. It is an oval-shaped mound formed by human habitation 500 meters x 1,350 meters and 8 meters high. The site was first discovered in 1966. It has since been extensively excavated and its remains studied by Thai and international scholars. Since 1966 the dating of the site has been adjusted and refined over time in line with advances in the understanding and techniques of radiometric dating. This research has revealed that the site dates from 1,495 BC .and contains early evidence for settled agrarian occupation in Southeast Asia, along with evidence of wet rice agriculture, associated technological complex of domesticated farm animals, ceramic manufacture, and bronze tool-making technology. The total area of the property is 67.36 ha of which approximately 0.09% has been excavated (as of 2012).
The Ban Chiang Archaeological Site is a prehistoric human habitation and burial site. It is considered by scholars to be the most important prehistoric settlement so far discovered in Southeast Asia, marking the beginning and showing the development of the wet-rice culture typical of the region. The site has been dated by scientific chronometric means (C-14 and thermo luminescence) which have established that the site was continuously occupied from 1495BC until c. 900BC., making it the earliest scientifically-dated prehistoric farming and habitation site in Southeast Asia known at the time of inscription onto the World Heritage List.
The Ban Chiang cultural complex is well-defined and distinctive from anything that preceded it. Through it can trace the spread and development of prehistoric society and its development into the settled agricultural civilizations which came to characterize the region throughout history which still continue up to the present day. Advances in the fields of agriculture, animal domestication, ceramic and metal technology are all evident in the archaeological record of the site. Also evident is an increasing economic prosperity and social complexity of the successive communities at Ban Chiang, made possible by their developing cultural practices, as revealed through the many burials, rich in ceramic and metal grave goods, uncovered at the site.
The Ban Chiang Archaeological Site is also the richest in Southeast Asia in the number and variety of artefacts recovered from the site. As such, the property has been extensively studied by scholars as the archaeological “type-site” for the beginnings of settled agricultural communities and their associated technologies in the region.
Whilst Ban Chiang Archaeological Site is one of the most important prehistoric settlements discovered in Southeast Asia Mainland, the Niah Caves Archaeological Site is the most important prehistoric settlement so far discovered on the islands of Southeast Asia. What makes the Niah Caves Archaeological site more interesting and outstanding then Ban Chiang is that the sites in Niah have been used by humans since over 40,000 years ago until today. The Traders’ cave of Niah is an example of a site that has been used for trading activities from ancient times until 1960s between the Chinese traders from the Mainland and local peoples exchanging harvested bird’s nests and forest products from Niah for ceramic, textile and glass beads from China. Some of the most ancient traditions of Niah, such as the Semah ritual, bird’s nest harvesting and beaded accessories are still practiced by the locals and the skills and knowledge of the people are well recorded and preserved.