During recent reinvestigations in the Great Cave of Niah in Borneo, the ‘Hell Trench’ sedimentary sequence seen by earlier excavators was re-exposed. Early excavations here yielded the earliest anatomically-modern human remains in island Southeast Asia. Calibrated radiocarbon dates, pollen, algal microfossils, palynofacies, granulometry and geochemistry of the ‘Hell Trench’ sequence provide information about environmental and vegetational changes, elements of geomorphic history and information about human activity. The ‘Hell’ sediments were laid down episodically in an ephemeral stream or pool. The pollen suggests cyclically changing vegetation with forest habitats alternating with more open environments; indicating that phases with both temperatures and precipitation reduced compared with the present. These events can be correlated with global climate change sequences to produce a provisional dating framework. During some forest phases, high counts of Justicia, a plant which today colonises recently burnt forest areas, point to fire in the landscape. This may be evidence for biomass burning by humans, presumably to maintain forest-edge habitats. There is evidence from palynofacies for fire on the cave floor in the ‘Hell’ area. Since the area sampled is beyond the limit of plant growth, this is evidence for human activity. The first such evidence is during an episode with significant grassland indicators, suggesting that people may have reached the site during a climatic phase characterised by relatively open habitats ~50 ka. Thereafter, people were able to maintain a relatively consistent presence at Niah. The human use of the ‘Hell’ area seems to have intensified through time, probably because changes in the local hydrological regime made the area dryer and more suitable for human use.
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