sign in a cave in Laos

18 July 2008

Lenggong, Pen. Malaysia's oldest prehistoric site - WA

Lenggong Valley: Peninsular Malaysia's Oldest Prehistoric Site

From the remains of the paleolithic Perak Man, ancient burial grounds, to Negrito cave drawings, LIZ PRICE digs up archaelogical gems in the limestone karsts of Upper Perak.

[published on WildAsia 6 Jul 2002]

Peninsula Malaysia's oldest inhabitant is 11,000 years old, and his name is Perak Man. He is now residing in a museum in Perak, having recently been to Japan for an exhibition. He is a Stone Age man, and was found buried in Gua Gunung Runtuh at Lenggong in Perak. It is believed he was an important member of his tribe judging by the way he was buried, in a foetal position, accompanied by stone tools. He was about 157cm tall and probably aged between 30-55 when he died.

This is the only complete human skeleton which has been found in Malaysia. Also discovered in the cave were some older bones, and remnants of tools and food such as shells and animal bones. The cave was probably used as a camp for hunting, being well situated high up.

The earliest known site of human inhabitation was at Kota Tampan. Excavations which began in 1938 revealed an undisturbed stone tool production area, where pebble tools were made using equipment such as anvils and hammer stones. Some 50,000 pieces of stone have been found and recorded, and the culture is referred to as Tampanian. The workshop 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 200,000 years old, which is therefore far older than the Kota Tampan workshop, which is just 6km away.

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.

The Lenggong valley in Upper Perak is one of Peninsula Malaysia's most important areas for archaeology, as excavations have revealed many traces of Malaysia's prehistory. The town of Lenggong is situated some 100 kilometres north of Ipoh on the Kuala Kangsar to Grik road. It is the site of the oldest known place of human activity in the Peninsula.

Actually Malaysia is a very young country archaeologically having a very recent prehistory. In Africa the predecessors of the human species originated about 3 - 5 million years ago. Their descendants migrated out of Africa and remains have been found all over Europe and Asia, e.g. Java Man and Peking Man, both date from 300,000 years ago.

Malaysia's earliest remains only date back some 40,000 years, from Niah Cave in Sarawak, where a human skull was found. In Semenanjung (Peninsula) Malaysia the story is even more recent, 31,000 years and starts in Lenggong. Incidentally, many people think of the Bujang Valley in Kedah as being one of the oldest sites, but its history only stretches back about 1,500 years.

Lenggong's prehistory extends back to the Palaeolithic or old Stone Age, but most sites are more recent, from the Neolithic or new Stone Age. The Palaeolithic period occurred from 2 million - 10,000 years ago, and the people at that time were the first tool makers, who lived by hunting and gathering. During the new Stone Age the tools had been improved, and pottery was used, and the people practised farming.

All the archaeological remains found in Lenggong have been associated with caves, with the exception of Kota Tampan and Bukit Jawa. These two are Peninsular Malaysia's only Palaeolithic sites. Today it is a rural area a few kilometres south of Lenggong, with small kampungs surrounded by green vegetation and limestone hills. Although the Kota Tampan workshop site is currently on a hillside, and in an oil palm plantation, the original site was on a lake shore.

It is thought that the workshop was disbanded around 30,000 years ago due to a volcanic eruption at Lake Toba in Sumatra, some 250 kilometres away. There is a large gap of some 17,000 years between Kota Tampan and the next archaeological site, Gua Gunung Runtuh. Maybe the Lenggong area became unsuitable for human habitation during this period, but of course nobody today can be sure of this.

Gua Gunung Runtuh is situated in Bukit Kepala Gajah or Elephant's Head Hill. In the same hill other caves have yielded archaeological remains such as stone tools and food remnants, but no more skeletons. The caves were probably used as temporary shelters as seasonal or hunting camps, whereas Gua Gunung Runtuh was lived in for longer periods.

The next oldest site is Gua Harimau or Tiger Cave. It is about 3 kilometres away from Gua Gunung Runtuh and is an isolated site, and was probably used as a burial ground some 5000 - 3000 years ago. Seven human skeletons have been found (but no tiger bones), also bronze axes, and various articles of jewellery such as chains, bangles, earrings and bead lockets. The bronze axes show that there was an early Bronze tradition in Malaysia, as well as in north Thailand and China. It is the earliest use of metal in south-east Asia. Porcelain containers of various shapes and sizes were also found containing meat and siput shells (a generic name for snails).

Archaeological digs in other caves have revealed pottery, axes stone tools and flakes. Also food remains, and in some sites, human bones. Unfortunately some caves have been disturbed by guano diggers and any remains have therefore been lost.

Gua Puteri is a natural tunnel which pierces Bukit Kajang. There are no archaeological findings here, but instead the cave is known for its legends. Two stalagmites are believed to be a prince and princess who guard the cave. Locals say that if children climb up the stalagmites they will fall sick.

Negrito cave drawings have been found at various sites but are not prehistoric, as they are only about 100 years old. Gua Badak is one of the main places for these drawings, situated about 10 kilometres north of Lenggong. The Negritos are one of the aboriginal tribes of Malaysia.

The Lanoh Negrito made the illustrative recordings of their every life. The charcoal drawings were first discovered and documented in the 1920's by Ivor Evans. They were then thought to have been lost by quarrying, but were rediscovered in 1992 and hopefully will now be preserved as a national heritage. Luckily most of the drawings survived the blasting, although some are missing, believed destroyed. And unfortunately modern graffiti covers some of the original drawings.

Unlike cave art at places such as Lascaux in France, which date back some 15,000 years, the Negrito drawings are "modern" art. The Negritos used the caves as shelters during hunting trips. The sketches depict tribal art such as animals, people, trees, mats, and even bicycles and motorcars. Apart from the charcoal drawings, they made white pictures by scrapping away the limestone rock.

The drawings are simple, featuring matchstick men. There is a man carrying a pole laden with coconuts. A bow and arrow symbolize the hunting tools which were replaced by the blowpipe. There are men on horses, a man with an elephant, a hunting party. Animals such as leaf monkeys, monitor lizards and porcupine all made for a good meal and were therefore illustrated.

The Lanoh Negritos are still found in Perak today, generally working on rubber and oil palm estates, although some do still hunt. They are formed into six tribes.

Most of the old troglodytes or cave dwellers of the Malay Peninsula temporarily lived in caves and rock shelters. They lived mainly by hunting, evidence shown by the remains of animal bones and molluscs.

The people may have painted their bodies using red iron oxide. They used stones and slabs for grinding up substances such as salt, and all their tools were made of stones. Flakes were used as knives or scrappers.

So it can be seen that the Lenggong area is very important as it contains much evidence relating to the prehistory of Malaysia. It is the oldest area where remains have been found, and all the sites are situated conveniently within a small area.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.

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