Niah - Early Human Settlements
In 1958, a discovery was made which confirmed Niah's place as a
site of major archaeological significance. Harrisson and his team
unearthed a skull which was estimated to be 40,000 years old. The
find was at first ridiculed by the scientific community, for it
was the skull of a modern human (homo sapiens sapiens), and it was
widely believed that Borneo was settled much later. However, as
dating techniques improved, and as more evidence of the settlement
of Southeast Asia and Australasia came to light, Harrisson was proved
What is most interesting about Niah, however, is the comtinued
human presence over tens of thousands of years, and the sophistication
of the societies that gradually developed there. A large burial
site further into the mouth of the cave had clearly been used from
palaeolithic times right up to the modern era, as late as 1400 AD.
The earliest graves, found in the deepest levels, were simple shallow
graves without adornment. Yet moving up through the layers, conffins
and urns appeared, along with grave goods such as pottery, textiles
and ornaments, and even glass and metal items, which came comparatively
late to Borneo.
The Great Cave is not the only important archaeological site. The
Painted Cave, as its name suggests, houses detailed wall-paintings
depicting the boat journey of the dead into the afterlife. The meaning
of the paintings was explained by the discovery of a number of "death-ships"
on the cave floor - boat-shaped coffins containing the remains of
the deceased and a selection of grave-goods considered useful in
the afterlife, such as Chinese ceramics, ornaments and glass beads.
The death-ships have been dated as ranging between 1 AD and 780
AD, although local Penan folklore tells of the use of death-ship
burials as late as the 19th century.