Niah National Park
The main entrance to the Niah Caves at sunset
The caves are thought to have been visited by Europeans in search of minerals, perhaps in the late 1840s, but no documentation is known. Alfred Russel Wallace is said to have learned about the caves during his 1855 expedition to (then much smaller) Sarawak: if so it was from his host at the Simunjan coal mine, Robert Coulson, who had worked in Labuan and explored its adjacent areas. Coulson did write to him about finding bones in a cave on 'a mountain some distance inland' (most likely Niah) in 1863. Wallace subsequently recommended to Charles Darwin and the Royal Society that Coulson be appointed to explore the caves of Borneo as a potential site for discovering important hominid fossils; however, Alfred Hart Everett was chosen.
In the 1950s, Tom Harrisson, the curator of Sarawak State Museum was searching for evidence of ancient human activity in Sarawak. He came across Niah Cave, which showed no evidence of ancient human activity in the area. However, he inferred that since the cave was cool and dry and there were millions of bats and swiflets which can used as food, ancient humans could have lived in the cave. Therefore, in October 1954, Harrisson with his two friends, Michael Tweedie and Mr Hugh Gibb spent two weeks examining the Niah. They found evidence of long term human occupation, habitation, and burial. In 1957, Sarawak museum organised a larger expedition with transport and equipment from Brunei Shell Petroleum and Sarawak Oilfields Ltd (Shell). Eathernware, shell scrapers, shell ornaments, stone pounders, bone tools, and food remains were found. Radiocarbon dating of the charcoal layers put the site at 40,000 years old, dating back to Paleolithic era. The expedition team led by Barbara Harrisson discovered the Deep Skull in February 1958. It is a partial skull with maxilla, two molar teeth and a portion of the base of the skull. The skull is highly fragile and is not fossilised. The morphology of the skull is suggestive of belonging to a female in her late teens to mid-twenties. Near to the skull, a complete left femur and right proximal tibia was found which belongs to the same individual. Harrisson also discovered Neolithic burial sites from 2,500 to 5,000 years ago. The discoveries led to more expeditions in 1959, 1965, and 1972.
There is lack of paleogeography, stratigraphy, and archeological relationships to support Tom Harrisson's work. Therefore, more fieldwork was conducted by Sarawak state museum in 2000 to establish a more detailed history of Niah Caves. The ancient humans living in the Niah Caves probably already used of mammal and fish trapping technologies, projectile technology, tuber digging, plant detoxification, and forest burning.
Since then, local universities and foreign scientists have continued the archaeological research, and many articles have been published in the Sarawak Museum Journal. The site has been re-excavated (1999–2003+) by The Niah Caves Project (NCP), a joint British-Malaysian expedition, to determine the accuracy of Harrisson's work.
Niah Caves is located on the northern edge of a limestone mountain named Gunung Subis (Mount Subis). The entrance is located at the west mouth of the cave. The location is 15 km from the South China Sea and 50 m above sea level. The west mouth of the Niah Caves is 150 m wide and 75 m high.
The caves have been used by humans at different times ranging from the prehistory to neolithic, Chinese Sung-Era and more recent times. The Sarawak Museum began systematic archaeological work in the caves in 1954.
The cave is an important prehistorical site where human remains from 40,000 years ago have been found. This is the oldest recorded human settlement in east Malaysia. More recent studies published in 2006 have shown evidence of the first human activity at the Niah caves from ca. 46,000 to ca. 34,000 years ago. Painted Cave, situated in a much smaller limestone block of its own, some 150 metres from the Great Cave block's south eastern tip, has rock paintings dated as 1,200 years old. Archeologists have claimed a much earlier date for stone tools found in the Mansuli valley, near Lahad Datu in Sabah, but precise dating analysis has not yet been published.
Items found at Niah Cave include Pleistocene chopping tools and flakes, Neolithic axes, adzes, pottery, shell jewellery, boats, mats, then iron tools and ceramics and glass beads dating to the Iron Age. The most famous find is the human skull dated at around 38,000 years BCE. Painted Cave has paintings and wooden coffin 'death ships'.
The caves are also well known for the bird's nest industry. They are a popular tourist destination in Sarawak. Every section of the ceiling in the caves where there are swiftlets roosting is privately owned and only the owner has the right to collect the nests. Collection is done half-yearly (usually in January and in June). The collector climbs up hundreds of feet on a single pole to the cave ceiling and scrapes off the nest in flickering candlelight.
- Alfred R.Wallace, Letter to the Reader, 18 March 1864, Bone Caves in Borneo
- Harrisson, Tom (1957). "The Great Cave of Niah: A Preliminary Report on Bornean Prehistory". Man. 57: 161–166. doi:10.2307/2795279. JSTOR 2795279.
- Graeme, Barker; Huw, Barton; Michael, Bird (March 2007). "The 'human revolution' in lowland tropical Southeast Asia: the antiquity and behavior of anatomically modern humans at Niah Cave (Sarawak, Borneo)". Journal of Human Evolution. 52 (3): 243–261. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2006.08.011. PMID 17161859.
- Reynolds, Tim; et al. (2015). "Reconstructing Late Pleistocene Climates, Landscapes, and Human Activities in Northern Borneo from Excavations in the Niah Caves". In Kaifu, Yousuke; et al. (eds.). Emergence and Diversity of Modern Human Behavior in Paleolithic Asia. Texas A&M University Press.
- The Niah Cave Project at the University of Leicester.
- Sulok, Tawie (22 January 2019). "Sarawak to re-submit bid to make Niah Caves Unesco heritage site". The Malay Mail. Archived from the original on 30 January 2019. Retrieved 5 February 2019.
- "The Great Cave of Niah" by Huw Barton
- Barker, Graeme; et al. (2007). "The 'human revolution' in lowland tropical Southeast Asia: the antiquity and behavior of anatomically modern humans at Niah Cave (Sarawak, Borneo)". Journal of Human Evolution. 52 (3): 243–261. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2006.08.011. PMID 17161859. Retrieved 7 April 2012.
- Fong, Durie Rainer (10 April 2012). "Archaeologists hit 'gold' at Mansuli". The Star. Archived from the original on 12 April 2012. Retrieved 15 April 2012.
- Kennedy, Kenneth A. R., "The Deep Skull of Niah: an Assessment of Twenty Years of Speculation Concerning its Evolutionary Significance", Asian Perspectives, XX(I), 1977
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Niah National Park.|
- Tourism Malaysia - Niah National Park
- A short description of the caves as a touristic destination.
- Summary of the article "A short history of birds' nests management in the Niah caves (Sarawak)." by Quentin Gausset from the "Borneo Research Bulletin" published in 2002.
- Another version from the Sarawak Forestry with a map of the caves[permanent dead link]
- Article with a picture of some paintings and death ships.
- Picture of some cave paintings.