sign in a cave in Laos

23 August 2008

Perak Man’s bones tell his story - Star 2003

4 October 2003


Perak Man’s bones tell his story
By Liz Price

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 November and December 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 10,000 and 11,000 years old, which makes him a Stone Age man, from the Palaeolithic period. The skeleton was found by Datuk Prof Zuraini 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 40-50 when he died. He had an atrophied left hand and one finger 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 tribe had used that cave as a shelter.

The Lenggong valley is one of the Peninsula’s most important areas for archaeology, as excavations have revealed many traces of Malaysia’s pre-history. The town of Lenggong is situated some 100km north of Ipoh on the Kuala Kangsar-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 and seasonal 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 three to five 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.

The museum exhibits artifacts 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 Civilisation Gallery.

The Lenggong Valley has several sites of archaeological importance, such as Bukit Jawa at Kg 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 artifact 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.

Various other caves in the vicinity were dug by the researchers who found artifacts 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 relate to the history of human evolution and civilisation, dating from the Homo habilis to the modern Homo sapiens.

This year a USM archaeology team led by Dr Mohd Mokhtar Saidin worked on an open site in Bukit Bunuh, about one kilometre 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 Zuraina and the Museum and Antiquity Department, for their untiring efforts.

The only unfortunate factor about the location of the museum is that it is “off the beaten track” and won’t attract many casual visitors. At Tasek Raban, 3km 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.

The Lenggong Archaeological Museum
Kota Tampan, Lenggong, Perak

Location: The Museum is about 70km from the Jalan Butterworth/ Ipoh intersection, along the Kuala Kangsar to Grik road.

It is open daily from 9am to 5pm; Fridays from 9am to 12.15pm, 2.45pm to 5pm. Closed on Hari Raya. Admission is free.

Originally published in The Star on

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