Missing links, cultural modernity and the dead: anatomically modern humans in the Great Cave of Niah (Sarawak, Borneo)

Christopher Hunt, Graeme Barker

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The Great Cave of Niah in Sarawak (northern Borneo) came into the gaze of Western Science through the work of Alfred Russell Wallace, who came to Sarawak in the 1850s to search for ‘missing links’ in his pioneering studies of evolution and the natural history of Island Southeast Asia and Australasia. The work of Tom and Barbara Harrisson in the 1950s and 1960s placed the Great Cave, and particularly their key find, the ‘Deep Skull’, at the nexus of the evolving archaeological framework for the region: for decades the skull, dated in 1958 by adjacent charcoal to c.40,000 BP, was the oldest fossil of an anatomically modern human anywhere in the world and thus critical to ideas about human evolution and dispersal. Although several authorities later questioned the provenance and antiquity of the Deep Skull, renewed investigations of the Harrisson excavations since 2000 have shown that it can be attributed securely to a specific location in the Pleistocene stratigraphy, with direct U-series dating on a piece of the skull indicating an age for it of c.37,500 BP and the first evidence for associated human activity at the site going back to c.50,000 BP. The new work also indicates that the skull is part of a cultural deposit, perhaps a precursor to the long tradition in Borneo of processing of the dead and secondary burial. These indicators of cultural complexity chime with the complexity of the subsistence behaviour of the early users of the caves discussed by Philip Piper and Ryan Rabett in chapter ten of this volume.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSouthern Asia, Australia, and the search for human origins
EditorsRobin Dennell , Martin Porr
PublisherCambridge University Press
ISBN (Print)9781107017856
Publication statusPublished - 01 May 2014


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