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18 July 2008

Perak Man & Lenggong Archaeological Museum - WildAsia

Perak Man and the Lenggong Archaeological Museum

Outside history-loving circles, few people know that Perak's Lenggong Valley houses Malaysia's most important prehistoric find - Perak Man. LIZ PRICE pays a visit to the newly opened Archaeological Museum and discovers a treasure house of ancient artefacts.

[published on WildAsia 24 Aug 2004]

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 Nov - Dec 2001 he visited Kuala Lumpur where he was the star in an exhibition entitled Perak Man. Now he is having a well deserved rest and is 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 survive to tell the tale.

Perak Man, found in 1991, is the only complete human skeleton which has been found in Malaysia. The cave which 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. The skeleton was found by Prof. Zuraina Majid and her team from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

It is believed Perak Man was an important member of his tribe judging by the way he was buried, in a foetal position, and accompanied by stone tools. He was about 157cm tall and probably aged between 40-50 when he died. He had an atrophied left hand and one figure was deformed. As well as the skeleton, remnants of tools and food such as shells and animal bones were found in the cave.

The first time I went up to the Lenggong area I visited Gua Gunung Runtuh. Although there was nothing to see except for the pits dug in the floor by the archaeological researchers, it was easy to get the imagination going, and to reflect on how Perak Man and his fellow humans had used that cave as a shelter. 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 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. 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.

Gua Gunung Runtuh was probably used as a temporary camp when the people were out hunting, being well situated high up. 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.

Kota Tampan is the site of a prehistoric stone tool workshop, and has been dated at about 74,000 years old. This makes it older than the archaeological remains which have been found at Niah Cave in Sarawak, where one human skull has been dated at about 40,000 years old. 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.

When I first visited Kota Tampan archaeological site it consisted of little more than a single shelter and a lone notice board, in the middle of oil palm plantations. Now there is the stylish Lenggong Archaeological Museum, also known as the Kota Tampan Archaeological Museum. The building site was chosen as it displays the reconstruction of the Kota Tampan excavation site and it is ideal to locate a museum in such an old palaeolithic-era archaeological area.

The museum 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 Pre-Historic Gallery and the Human Civilization Gallery.

The Lenggong Valley has several sites of archaeological importance, such as Bukit Jawa at Kampung Geluk, and Kg. Temelong where stone tools dating back 100,000 years were found. The nearby Bukit Bunuh finds are more recent at 50,000 years! But the most fascinating and unique artefact is the 11,000-year old Perak Man skeleton. I am not sure if the real skeleton is on display or if it is a replica - I hope it is a replica and the real skeleton is safely under lock and key.

Various other caves in the vicinity were dug by the researchers who found artefacts from the Bronze Neolithic Age at Gua Harimau, and stone tools from the Upper Palaeolithic age at Gua Telok Kelawar and Ngaum caves. Other items on display are the history of human evolution and civilization, dating from Homo habilis to the modern Homo sapiens.

This year a USM archaeology team led by Dr Mohd Mokhtar Saidin were working on an open site in Bukit Bunuh, about 1km away from the museum. The findings were unusual as they included chert stones, which are normally associated with volcanoes. So at some time in the past there must have been a volcanic eruption in this area. This is interesting news and the researchers are still looking into it.

The Museum opened its doors to the public earlier this year, and cost some RM3mil to set up. The Sultan of Perak, Sultan Azlan Shah, officially opened it in July. He paid special tribute to USM, particularly to Prof Datuk Dr Zuraina Majid and the Museums and Antiquities Department, for their untiring efforts in all their research.

The only unfortunate factor about the location of the museum is that it is "off the beaten track" and won't attract many casual passing visitors. Most visitors would need to know about it and make an effort to go. At Tasek Raban, 3km away from Kota Tampan where the museum is sited, a cluster of chalets costing RM2.2mil, are being built. This is a popular spot for fishing and water sports. When I visited the museum mid-week with a friend, we were the only visitors, and I had the feeling we were the only visitors that day - the staff were certainly surprised to see us turn up (maybe it was the fact we were both mat salleh). But it is definitely well worthy of a visit, as it depicts an important element of Malaysia's past, in fact the oldest part of Malaysia's ancient history.

© Liz Price

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