On 7 February 1958, the diggers in ‘Hell Trench’ at the West Mouth of the Niah Cave found a human skull. They were working on the edge of a huge underground complex whose central chamber was the size of a cathedral. It was well known to local hunter-gatherers as place to collect bat guano to sell as fertiliser and swifts’ nests to supply the Chinese market for birds’ nest soup. It had now become the site of a major dig organised by Tom Harrisson and his wife Barbara. And ‘Hell Trench’ – so called because of the heat and humidity, especially in the afternoon when the sun shone directly overhead – had just yielded a find that was to rock the archaeological establishment.
At the time, the oldest dated example of a fully modern human was the 33,000 year-old Cro-Magnon Man. This fossil was the basis of two key ideas about human evolution: first, that Homo sapiens had evolved in Europe; and second, that the fully developed species (sometimes called Homo sapiens sapiens) was directly descended from Neanderthals. But the ‘Deep Skull’ from Niah – that of a 15-17 year-old ‘gracile’ (or light-boned) adolescent, probably a girl, and most definitely a fully modern human – had been found in sediments containing charcoal with a radiocarbon date of c. 40,000 BC. Not only was this older than the Cro-Magnon skull; it was older than some Neanderthal specimens. It looked as if there were modern humans in Southeast Asia when Europe was still populated by Neanderthals.
There were doubters. Tom and Barbara Harrisson were skilled amateurs, not professionals, and Tom had a reputation for deviousness. Could the evidence be trusted? Specifically, how reliable was the claimed relationship between the charcoal and the skull? Some even suspected that the skull had been planted. Others were concerned that the Harrissons did not dig stratigraphically – layer by layer. Their method was to remove uniform horizontal spits – 6 inches at a time in sterile deposits, 2 inches in more interesting ones – and to record where things were found by measuring down from the original ground surface. Further excavations in the 1970s by Zuraina Majid for her Berkeley PhD provided important additional information, including new radiocarbon dates, but failed to resolve the debates about the original discoveries.
Was the skull really 40,000 years old? And was there really, as Tom Harrisson also claimed, a record of unbroken human occupation from that time until the present?

Graeme Barker, professor of archaeology at the University of Leicester, first saw the Niah Cave in 1996. A colleague doing fieldwork in Sarawak – looking for rice impressions in prehistoric pottery as evidence for early cultivation – had raved about the place for years and finally persuaded Barker to go out and have a look. He was immediately captivated by the site. The Harrissons had not just found a skull; they had dug 90% of a major prehistoric site and filled the national museum with shells, animal bones, stone tools, pottery fragments, the remains of textiles and basketry, and Neolithic skeletons. The collection seemed to span the entire 40,000-year history of human settlement in Southeast Asia. The problem was that, though the recording had been detailed, the Harrissons’ way of excavating in uniform horizontal spits meant that the relative ages of different finds were uncertain. This technique is rarely used nowadays, and then only on land that is dead flat. In the Niah Cave, the stratification is formed of sloping, unstable mudflows, such that many of the Harrisson spits had cut across at least two and usually more separate deposits; thus the confusion. Graeme Barker’s idea, as he planned a new project in the late 1990s, was to return to the Cave and re-examine the stratigraphy using modern methods. The hope was that it would then be possible to match up new observations with the Harrisson excavation records. If it could be done, a new team could tackle some of the biggest issues in Southeast Asian prehistory.
The first of these concerns the date when modern humans first arrived in Southeast Asia en route to Australia. The debate about hominid evolution has moved on since the Harrissons’ day. Homo sapiens remains even older than the Deep Skull from Niah have now been found in Africa and the Near East, strengthening the ‘Out of Africa II’ theory, the idea that the ‘Moderns’ first evolved in Africa and then spread out from there to replace the ‘Ancients’ in Europe and Asia. But how early did this happen? Homo sapiens remains from Lake Mungo in central Australia have been dated to c. 40,000 BC, but the species could have arrived on the continent earlier. One aim for the new Niah project was to check the date of the Deep Skull and to test the possibility of even earlier hominid activity.
A second issue was how early humans survived in the prehistoric rainforest. Many people imagine these environments to have been like the Garden of Eden for human foragers, but in fact rainforests are difficult to live in because the food sources come in small ‘packets’ rather than clusters, and these packets are widely dispersed and often inaccessible. To catch a small monkey whose habitat is the upper tree canopy – assuming it could be done at all – would be to expend much effort in a hazardous enterprise for modest reward. Anthropologists have shown that many present-day foragers survive in the rainforest only by trading forest products with neighbouring societies for food or cash. Many also engage in forms of horticulture, clearing areas of forest of other vegetation, for example, to encourage the growth of favoured food plants. How did they manage in prehistory?
Finally, when, why and how did farming begin in Southeast Asia? Here the debate is between diffusion and evolution. Some support an ‘Express Train’ model, which sees Neolithic colonists arriving by boat from the north with their domesticated rice and pigs. Others imagine agriculture developing independently in different places, perhaps with a long period of experiment and piecemeal adaptation by local foragers before full-blown farming got under way. The Harrisson excavations had shown that the transition from foraging to farming was likely to be represented in the stratification preserved in the Niah Cave.
The Niah Cave was perfect for an approach that aimed to weave multiple strands into a single thread. The team comprised about 30 scientists from a dozen universities, working on behalf of (and enthusiastically supported by) the Sarawak Museum. Between 2000 and 2003, the team completed four seasons in the field, each lasting three weeks, an operation funded principally by two generous AHRB (Arts and Humanities Research Board) grants of £124,956 and £196,614. Conditions were tough. ‘Many of the team had worked together in difficult environments, including the Libyan and Jordanian deserts,’ explains Barker, ‘but these were by far the hardest conditions. The cave was an hour’s walk and climb through the rainforest in 100% humidity. All the specialist equipment had to be carried to the cave from our riverside camp every day, and then carried back in the evening, together with bags of sediment needed for botanical analysis by flotation and wet sieving (as there was no water in the cave). Add the cobras in the cave, the crocodiles in the river, and the poisonous ferns and millipedes in between, set alongside the overpowering beauty of the rainforest and the hospitality of the people, and you have an unforgettable and exhilarating experience.’
It was also a highly productive one. The team cleaned and recorded the exposed sections – the vertical faces through the stratification – left by the previous excavators. They carried out further excavations of their own – though on a much smaller scale – to recover representative groups of finds and take samples from the different layers. And they attempted to match up their findings with the Harrissons’ site records and catalogues. The find-spot of the Deep Skull was pinpointed to within about 20cm. It had lain within what Barker’s team called the ‘Unit 2 red silts’ – a series of superimposed layers low down in the archaeological sequence formed by stream channels. The Unit 2 deposits were overlain by a series of mudflows (Unit 3), and from the junction between them charcoal samples were taken which yielded calibrated radiocarbon dates of c. 41-42,000 BC. This provides a terminus ante quem for the Deep Skull: since it lay beneath the deposit containing this charcoal, it must be at least 43-44,000 years old.
Interleaved between sloping deposits formed naturally by streams and hillwash, there were darker, more humic, ash-rich deposits . The Deep Skull had probably come from within one of these ‘stabilisation surfaces’. Excavation yielded two struck flakes and a wide range of ‘ecofacts’ – the remains of plants and animals. Furthermore, there were four more such stabilisation surfaces containing evidence of human occupation below the level of the Deep Skull – pushing the date of the earliest human presence backwards in time. Graeme Barker explains the significance of these discoveries:
‘We have found that the first foragers visited the West Mouth of the Niah Cave about 50,000 years ago. Borneo at that time was connected to mainland Southeast Asia. The landscape by the caves was drier and more open than the present-day rainforest around Niah. There was a mosaic of closed forest alternating with scrub, bush or parkland, and including extensive areas of swamp, lakes or large rivers. The foragers’ visits to the cave are represented by darker layers, where they made fires and threw away the remains of their meals. Organic materials show that they were able to survive in the rainforest through effective systems of hunting, fishing, mollusc collection, and plant gathering. They were efficient hunters. Bones include pig, orangutan, porcupine, forest rat, wild cattle, shrew, monitor lizard, turtle, long-tailed monkey, macaque, snake, lizard, swiftlet, insect-eating bat, catfish, stingray, and giant ant-eater (now extinct). They collected molluscs from local streams and coastal mangrove swamp. And they gathered nuts and fruits, and also, on the evidence of plant tissue fragments and starch grains, rainforest tubers such as taro, yam and sago palm.’
The idea of a rapid transition here from foraging to farming – a ‘Neolithic Revolution’ – is probably wrong, and we should think of a long period of experiment, of subsistence strategies evolving in response to environmental change, and even a symbiosis between neighbouring communities exploiting the landscape in different ways. Foragers and farmers probably co-existed for thousands of years. Many societies probably combined the two ways of making a living – perhaps hunting and gathering alongside some forest clearance, patches of horticulture, and early attempts to domesticate animals.
The extraordinary adaptability of Homo sapiens is clear at Niah. Graeme Barker concludes: ‘the evidence goes against the popular thesis that tropical rainforests must have been a significant barrier to modern humans because people did not know how to cope with them. Modern humans at Niah swiftly developed the necessary knowledge and techniques to survive in rainforests’. Equally, in the absence of evidence for a sudden transition to a Neolithic lifestyle, ‘the development of farming was probably not the result of farmers colonising Southeast Asia from the Chinese mainland, as many have argued, but the culmination of a long process of experimentation and adaptation by indigenous forager populations going back 50,000 years’.

– Neil Faulkner

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 2. Click here to subscribe

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