Missing Links, Cultural Modernity and the Dead: Anatomically Modern Humans in the Great Cave of Niah

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CN Chapter 8

CT Missing Links, Cultural Modernity and the Dead: Anatomically Modern Humans in the Great Cave of Niah (Sarawak, Borneo)

Chris Hunt

Graeme Barker

McDonald Institute of Archaeological Research

Cambridge University

A-Head abstract

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 [CORRECT?] of this volume.

A-Head Introduction

During the course of his expedition to Borneo in 1855 to make collections of “shells, insects, birds, and the orang-utan” (Wallace 1913, 27), the Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was informed about enormous caverns at Niah and Mulu (Fig. 1). Though he was unable to visit them, he was convinced that such caves were likely to be the best locations to search for the ‘missing link’ between humans and apes (T. Harrisson 1958; Sherratt 2002). In 1864 he wrote to Charles Darwin with the information that the new British Consul going out to Sarawak had informed him that he intended to explore caves near the capital Kuching “and if anything of interest is obtained, a good large sum can no doubt be raised for a thorough exploration of the whole country” (T. Harrisson 1958, 551). In the event, it was A. Hart Everett, an amateur naturalist and collector who came out to work for the Sarawak government in 1869, who led the first scientific expedition to Sarawak caves in search of the ‘missing link’, backed by a committee formed of leading members of Victorian science in the UK: the geologist Charles Lyell, the archaeologist William Pengelly, and the anthropologist George Busk. In 1873 he visited the Bau Caves near Kuching and the Niah Caves, publishing an anonymous account of his visit to Niah’s main cavern, the Great Cave, in the Sarawak Gazette in the same year. He described how, after a difficult walk through the swamp forest, he arrived at the spectacular West Mouth of the Great Cave: “we found ourselves standing at the mouth of a large arched cavern, several hundred feet broad, and over two hundred feet high, huge stalactites were pending from the ceiling, and a fringe of vegetation dropping from its outer edge.” (Anon. 1873, 60; Fig. 2).

Everett collected some of the human remains lying on the surface of the West Mouth and other entrances to the Great Cave and took them back to London. Although George Busk ascertained that they were likely to be recent in age and “the information they afford is very meagre” (Busk 1879-80, 321), they raised sufficient interest for the British Association for the Advancement of Science to pass a resolution at its Dublin meeting in 1878 “that Mr John Evans, Sir John Lubbock, Major-General Lane Fox (General Pitt-Rivers), Mr George Busk, Professor Boyd Dawkins, Mr Pengelly, and Mr A. W. Franks be a Committee for the purpose of exploring Caves in Borneo; that Mr Evans be the Secretary; and that the sum of £50 be placed at their disposal for the purpose”. Further sums were raised, including from Charles Darwin, to meet the estimated costs of the expedition of £370, and Everett was dispatched to the Niah Caves again. He faced local opposition to his plans for excavation because of the disturbance to known burial grounds, and after undertaking a small amount of bone collection he concluded that the caves “were too recently raised above the waters of the sea to render it probable that future discoveries will be made” and “no further expense should be hazarded”. In a bizarre twist of fate, his Niah Caves collections, donated to what is now the Natural History Museum in London, almost certainly provided the orang-utan mandible and human skull that formed the Piltdown Man, the spectacular ‘missing link’ fossil reported in 1912 but demonstrated in the 1950s to be a crude forgery (Oakley & de Vries 1959).
A-Head The discovery of the ‘Deep Skull’
The famous swiftlet and bat populations of the caves, rather than their potential archaeological significance, first attracted Tom Harrisson, a passionate ornithologist, to visit the caves in 1947 (Harrisson 1958, 564-565). Born in 1911 and after being expelled from Cambridge University for disorderly conduct, he took part in a series of expeditions to remote places (including to Sarawak) and then in the Mass Observation project in Britain (Harrisson 1937; 1943; 1961; Heimann 1997). During World War II he trained as a commando and parachuted into the interior mountains of Sarawak in March 1945 to organise resistance against the Japanese occupying forces (Harrisson 1959), earning a DSO for the success of this mission. In 1947 he was appointed Curator of Sarawak Museum and Government Ethnologist, a position he held until his retirement in 1967. Alongside an abiding interest in the anthropology of the Sarawak peoples, and animal conservation, he embarked on a major programme of archaeological excavation given the complete absence of such work since Everett’s expeditions. Having no training he enlisted the help of Michael Tweedie, Curator of Singapore Museum, and after initial work in the Bau Caves and elsewhere near Kuching they started work in the West Mouth of the Niah Great Cave in 1954, with an initial two week season.
They excavated a large trench with considerable rapidity - and with a lack of control or recording that has meant that unfortunately little of this work can now be reconstructed. They dug through a succession of burials which we can now recognise as likely to have been Metal Age and Neolithic, finding underneath them deep deposits rich in evidence of early human occupation: charcoal, ash, animal bone fragments, and occasional primitive stone tools. Though Harrisson described the results as “incredible – just been digging there, fantastic”, he realised that it was “at once evident that to tackle this cave properly, we were going to need personnel by the score, financial resources by the tens of thousands, and a long-term programme of continuing work both in the field and with excavated material back in the Museum” (Heimann 1997, 291). In 1957 he returned to Niah with his newly-wed wife Barbara, beginning a ten-year campaign of major excavations of several months’ duration each season, most of which Barbara supervised for the duration of the work with Tom dividing his time between Niah and Sarawak Museum in Kuching. By the end they had conducted extensive excavations in most of the entrances to the Great Cave, and in many other small caves around the Niah limestone massif, but the most extensive excavations, and the most spectacular discoveries, were in the West Mouth.
The 1957 season concentrated on the West Mouth. A large trench was excavated around the 1954 pit, dug in horizontal ‘spits’ measured in relation to the original ground surface (Fig. 3). At the base of the trench the Harrissons excavated a deep sounding which they termed Hell because of the difficult working conditions under the full afternoon sun. A quantity of charcoal collected at depth in this trench (106 inches, or 260 cm, below the 1954 ground surface) and sent to the University of Groningen in the Netherlands for the new method of radiocarbon dating yielded a date of around 40,000 years ago, the maximum age range of the method at that time. On 7 February 1958, early in the 1958 season, Barbara’s team started to uncover fragments of human skull at the same depth as the 1957 charcoal sample (Fig. 4). Tom Harrisson was in Kuching to receive a visit from one of the world’s experts on human origins, Professor von Koenigswald. Summoned by telegram by Barbara, he and von Koenigswald travelled to Niah (by helicopter, courtesy of Shell) to witness the full excavation of the find. The skull, referred to subsequently as the Deep Skull, was studied by Don Brothwell at the British Museum and identified as that of teenage girl or young adult female, anatomically modern, of Australoid type (Brothwell 1960; Fig. 5). Although Barbara Harrisson remembers von Koenisgwald, who was hoping for a primitive fossil, dismissing the Deep Skull as “not interesting” as its physical features became apparent during excavation, its discovery brought the Great Cave to international attention because, if it was of the same antiquity as the 1957 charcoal sample, it was the earliest modern human fossil known that that time anywhere in the world. Human remains found near the Deep Skull, at the same depth, included an almost complete left femur and a right proximal tibia fragment (Krigbaum & Datan 1999; 2005) and a human talus (Hooijer 1963).

The Harrissons also found prolific evidence for human occupation at similar depths to the Deep Skull extending several metres to the north of the Hell Trench into a small rock overhang or shelter formed at the northern cave wall. They obtained a series of radiocarbon dates indicating that this part of the West Mouth, which they termed the ‘habitation’ or ‘frequentation’ zone, had been regularly occupied through the Late Pleistocene and into the Holocene. Further into the cave entrance they found a dense collection of some 200 graves (representing about 400 bodies) dating to the Neolithic and Metal Age, c.4,000-2,000 years ago. The Harrissons and their collaborators published numerous papers on their discoveries, especially in the Sarawak Museum Journal, but never a final report with detailed stratigraphic or contextual documentation, so doubts about the reliability of the Pleistocene finds, especially the status of the Deep Skull, were raised regularly by scholars attempting to incorporate the Niah finds into studies of the region’s prehistory (e.g. Bellwood 1997; Bulbeck 1982; Kennedy 1979; Solheim 1983; Storm 2001; Wolpoff 1999). Were the radiocarbon dates, at an early stage in the development of the method, reliable? A key component of the Harrisson dating was extrapolation by depth, anchored by the radiocarbon dates, and the most common sediment excavated in the West Mouth, described by Harrisson as the ‘pink and white layer’, was interpreted by him as formed by a constant drizzle of pink ‘cave earth’ from the cave roof mixed with fragments of white limestone lumps. Age-depth extrapolation of this kind, however, ran counter to the experience of most cave excavators dealing with complex cave sediments. Indeed, had the excavators unknowingly mixed material of different ages because of their spit method of excavation? Was the Deep Skull in fact from a Neolithic or Metal Age burial?
Small-scale excavations were undertaken in 1976 by the Malaysian archaeologist Zuraina Majid, for her Yale University PhD, to try to resolve such doubts, but although she secured new radiocarbon dates from the Hell Trench and other soundings in the West Mouth and demonstrated the validity of the broad sequence of Late Pleistocene and Holocene occupation and burial reported by the Harrissons (and added important new data to it), she was unable to resolve the underlying stratigraphic questions about the Harrisson discoveries (Zuraina Majid 1982). This was the context of the resumption of fieldwork at the site in 2000 by the Niah Caves Project (NCP), with the objectives of clarifying the nature and chronology of the stratigraphic sequences in the major cave entrances, and of associated human activity; locating these sequences in regional climatic and environmental frameworks; and using the new information to inform the re-study of the substantial archive of records and finds held in the Harrisson Excavation Archive at Sarawak Museum (Barker 2005; in press; Barker et al. 2002; 2007).
A-Head The West Mouth sedimentary sequence, and the location of the Deep Skull

The Niah Caves Project has established that the sedimentary deposits of the West Mouth are heterogeneous and have a variety of origins, including deposition by airfall, running water, mudflow and slope processes. Gilbertson et al. (2005) identified four archaeologically-significant lithofacies in the area adjacent to the findspot of the ‘Deep Skull’ in the Hell Trench (Fig. 6; Table 1). The age relationships of these sedimentary bodies have been resolved by AMS dating of charcoal fragments contained within them, the reliability of these dates significantly improved by the use of the ABOX pre-treatment technique (Higham et al. 2009). The sediments were laid down in a basin formed between the cave entrance lip, the north wall of the cave, and the toe of the guano mound filling the interior of the West Mouth. The basin lies partly under and in front of the rock overhang, extending to where the Hell Trench was located. Any water flowing down the guano mound drained into this basin and flowed northwards along it down a rock channel parallel to the cave lip, into the overhang, where it drained away through a sink-hole (inferred, not excavated).

Between c.50,000 cal. BP and 38,000 cal. BP Lithofacies 2 and 2C accumulated in the basin, the former from the exterior (western) side of the cave entrance and the latter from the interior, intermingling in the channel. Lithofacies 2C consisted of a colluvium formed of collapsed speleothem and other debris from the cave lip. It supported the development of temporary surfaces that were sufficiently stable to be burrowed into by insects such as robber wasps (Sphex diabolicus) and vertebrates, and on which people deposited cultural debris including the residues of fires, meals, and butchery activities. In the process of slipping down from the cave lip, Lithofacies 2C became interbedded with Lithofacies 2, complex red-brown silts and sands up to 2.5 m thick formed by the episodic occurrence of streams, ponds, mass movement and soil formation, separated by periods of desiccation. At least thirteen episodes of fluvial erosion have been recognised within Lithofacies 2 from geochemistry, granulometry and micromorphology, some of which reworked desiccated and cracked muds on the floor of the existing channel (Gilbertson et al. in press). The duration and intensity of these alternating wetting and drying episodes are not known, but the major oscillations that can be detected in the sedimentology and palynology can be broadly correlated with the isotope climate signals in the NGRIP ice core in Greenland (Hunt et al. 2012; Fig. 7). Cultural debris also accumulated on the Lithofacies 2 surfaces. Lithofacies 2C has continued to accumulate on the exterior side of the basin to the present day, but between c.38,000 cal. BP and c.35,000 cal. BP a major hydro-collapse in the interior guano mound caused a massive mudflow of wet guano up to 3 m thick to flow downslope into the basin, where it struck, flowed into, and mostly covered Lithofacies 2 and 2C (Figs 6 and 7). This more or less instantaneous mudflow, probably forming in hours or days, categorized as Lithofacies 3, is Harrisson’s ‘pink and white layer’ that he assumed had accumulated over many thousands of years as a drizzle of roof fall. Capping it in places was a related sediment derived from Lithofacies 3 by weathering, Lithofacies 3R.

Lithofacies 4, which formed on top of Lithofacies 3 and 3R between c.35,000 cal. BP and c.8000 cal. BP, consisted of brown fine-grained silt-rich sediments with plentiful evidence of human activity, the ‘frequentation deposits’ described by Harrisson as being extremely rich in ash, charcoal, butchered animal bone, stone tools etc. Most of this lithofacies was removed by the excavators, but mapping the vestiges that remain as plinths of sediment under the rock overhang and as a few standing walls, and correlating these with photographs in the Harrisson Excavation Archive, indicated that it extended over some 150 m2 from the back of the rock overhang across the basin at the front of the West Mouth and was up to 4 m thick in the centre of its distribution. Human activities during the accumulation of Lithofacies 4 included dumping large quantities of ash and digging pits into the underlying sediments probably for storing and in the process leaching out toxins from the nuts and tubers that were being collected for food (Barker et al. 2007; and see Piper and Rabett this volume). According to the radiocarbon dates of charcoal in these pits, these activities dated back to 33,790 ± 330 bp or 37,341-39,550 cal. BP (OxA-11302) and 29,070 ± 220 bp or 33,121-34,518 cal. BP (OxA-11303). The archive photographs show that such pits extended right across the Lithofacies 4 zone. The geochemistry and palynology of the Late Pleistocene sediments of Lithofacies 4 indicate that they developed in a climatic regime that was slightly cooler and drier than today, interspersed with wetter episodes, a sequence that again can be broadly equated with the NGRIP isotope curve (Hunt et al. 2012; Fig. 7).
From the depth measurements, descriptions and photographs in the Harrisson Excavation Archive it is clear that the Deep Skull and the associated human bones were found near the top of the channel sediments, in the zone where Lithofacies 2C and 2 interbedded, and below the Lithofacies 3 mudflow (Fig. 6). Two radiocarbon ABOX dates were obtained from Lithofacies 2 sediments immediately below the Lithofacies 3 mudflow, of 42,600 ± 670 bp or 44,695-47,005 cal. BP (Niah-310) and 41,800 ± 620 bp or 44,344-46,137 cal. BP (Niah-311). A charcoal sample found in the Harrisson Excavation Archive with a label in Tom Harrisson’s handwriting “charcoal adjacent to Deep Skull” was dated to 35,510 ± 350 or 39,676-41,503 cal. BP (OxA-V-2076-16). The latter was from square H19 at 106”, and the skull was found at the same depth across squares H6 and H19, squares measuring only 12” by 12” each, so the charcoal was clearly only a few inches from the skull. All three dates are in accord with the almost a dozen NCP dates obtained from charcoal either taken from surviving faces of the Harrisson trenches or from the archive than can be definitely associated with the Lithofacies 2/2C channel-fill sediments. Geometrically the skull lay within the highest local sediments of Lithofacies 2 and should therefore be of the same age as them, but in fact it is significantly younger than these altitudinally-equivalent sediments on the evidence of direct U/Th dating of a part of its mandible by Alisdair Pike, which indicates an age of 35,200±2600 years ago (Barker et al. 2007).
A-Head The sediments within and around the Deep Skull

Following its discovery in 1958, the Deep Skull was lifted within a block of sediment, encased in plaster and shipped to the British Museum for cleaning and investigation. The sediment cleaned from it by Don Brothwell in 1959 was stored thereafter in the British Museum and was re-discovered there by John Krigbaum in 2002. A subsample of this material was made available for analysis in 2005. For comparison, we also analysed some sediment from the Harrisson Excavation Archive labelled by Tom Harrisson “Soil from around Skull at H/6, 107”; Niah 15-2-58”. Even though the second sample derives from the same 12” by 12” grid square where much of the skull was found and at the same depth, there are significant differences in the sedimentology, geochemistry and palynology of the two samples.

The samples were visually examined under a low-powered dissecting microscope and the colour was established using Munsell charts. The material was then lightly disaggregated in a pestle and mortar and passed through a 2 mm stainless steel sieve to remove coarse particles before further analysis, following Gale and Hoare (1992). Geochemical analysis of the two samples was carried out by ICPMS at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Analysis of major elements was done on the sample from the Deep Skull by X-ray fluorescence using a Spectro-X Lab., loss on ignition was by the low-temperature method of Gale and Hoare (1992), and magnetic susceptibility was done using a Bartington MS2 meter. There was insufficient material in the H/6, 107” sample for X-ray fluorescence and magnetic susceptibility analyses, but enough material in the sample from the Deep Skull for two replicate XRF analyses. (The Deep Skull sample also included loose contaminant material that was removed with tweezers prior to the analysis: a paper fragment; several reddish human hairs; two fresh-looking termite fragments and vegetable fibres and monocotyledonous leaf-lamina fragments probably from palm leaves, presumably derived from the packing in which the skull was sent to the British Museum; and seven semi-fresh fungal hyphal strands probably relating to the slow drying of the skull after excavation.) [eds: THIS SENTENCE COULD BE A FOOTNOTE]
The material from the Deep Skull consisted of 36.9 g of angular fragments (~1-12 mm diameter, average about 3-4 mm) of a consolidated sandy diamict/muddy pebbly sand with ~5-10% porosity. The colour of the material was strong brown (7.5YR4/6). The matrix made up ~55% of the sediment and consisted of structureless, clast- to matrix-supported muddy sand, some areas with openwork texture, with occasional tubular voids probably reflecting ancient fungal hyphae or more likely fibres of vegetable matter. The sand fraction was sub-rounded to well-rounded and mostly composed of dark materials in the very fine sand range, though some (usually openwork) pockets are in the 1 mm range and richer in quartz and mudstone. The material was generally fairly weakly aggregated. One fragment of sediment was clearly micritised by calcite induration and six fragments were indurated by a slightly irregular layer of dark amorphous mineral, probably manganese.
About 45% of the material was composed of clasts larger than 2 mm and ~40% of the sediment was quartz in the form of sharp euhedral and irregular crystals, translucent, coloured strong brown to reddish yellow (7.5YR6/6 to 7.5YR5/6) and 5-10 mm in diameter. There were also <0.5% sub-rounded to well-rounded clear glassy quartz grains in the 2-4 mm range. Other clasts included ~3-5% sub-rounded to subangular mid-grey mudstone fragments up to 9 mm diameter. One mudstone fragment had a whitish quartz vein. Fragments of calcite were <2%, mostly irregular whitish, opaque fragments, plus three rhomboid whitish opaque crystals. Phosphate was <0.5%, in aggregates of dark brown stumpy crystals. Bone was <1% and consisted of flakes of large bones, longbone fragments probably of swiftlet-sized bird or bat, plus irregular fragments, all well-rounded, dark brown, and heavily mineralised. Three small fragments of charcoal were present (<0.1%). The H6, 107” sample was also strong brown in colour (7.5YR4/6), but much more even in texture, being a clayey sand in hand specimen. Under the low-power microscope no large clasts or charcoal fragments were visible, but it must be stressed that this was a very small sample, weighing ~10 g.
Many elements, particularly copper, tin, and antimony, but also scandium, titanium, vanadium, cobalt, nickel, zinc, arsenic, strontium, yttrium, cadmium, lanthanum, holmium, lead, thorium, and uranium, are more concentrated in the sample from the Deep Skull; only lithium, rubidium, caesium, and ytterbium are more concentrated in the sample from H/6, 107” (Table 2).
The XRF subsamples from the Deep Skull show reasonable replication (Table 3); given the heterogeneity of the sediment, a closer replication would not be expected. Aluminium, potassium and some silicon will have been derived from clay minerals from eroding soil profiles or from windblown loess; the remaining silicon will have been from silica (silt and possibly sand), largely ultimately derived from aeolian sources (Stephens et al. 2005). Calcium may have been present as calcium carbonate, but the presence of sulphur suggests that some was in the form of gypsum. Further calcium may have been present as calcium phosphate, a major component of bone, but also present as crystals in the sample. Chlorine is often a component in wood ash. Iron oxides are pervasive at Niah and are likely, at least in part, to be derived from tropical soil profiles, along with the clay minerals, but in the context of the cave, some may be diagenetic. The manganese is likely to have been derived from diagenetic manganese oxides.

The concentration of metals and metalloids in the Deep Skull sediment, compared with the H/6, 107” sample, is consistent with its high concentration of clay, though the concentrations of zinc, cadmium, tin, antimony and lead are inconsistent with a simple model of increased clay content: it suggests different sources - different stratigraphic levels - for the two samples despite their adjacency to each other. The XRF analyses of the Deep Skull sediments also indicate that they are significantly richer in aluminium than the altitudinally-similar sediments from the upper part of the Hell Trench sediments (Table 4), indicative of its higher clay content. It is significantly less rich in phosphorus and potassium and richer in iron than the surrounding sediments, and its magnetic susceptibility is two orders of magnitude higher than anywhere within the Hell Trench sequence (Table 5).

Palynological sub-samples were decalcified in dilute hydrochloric acid, then deflocculated in sodium pyrophosphate and sieved on nominal 6 µm nylon mesh. Remaining silicates were removed using cold hydrofluoric acid. The residues were neutralised, stained with basic fuchsin and safranin, then mounted in Gurr Aquamount. All pollen in each sample was counted, together with all algal microfossils under transmitted light using x1000 magnification. In each sample, an aliquot of about 200 organic particulates was also counted for palynofacies analysis (Hunt & Coles 1988). Pollen was identified using the type collection made by Bernard Maloney at Queen’s University Belfast, plus reference to the published literature. Taxa were calculated as % total pollen and spores, but excluding Justicia, which in other work at Niah is excluded from the percentage calculations throughout because it ‘drowned’ all other pollen signals (Hunt et al. 2007; 2012).
Pollen is the most common component (67%) of the particulate organic matter in the sample from the Deep Skull, but only comprises some 13% of the organic material in the H/6, 107” sediment. In the Deep Skull sample algae are also important (14%), and there are lesser amounts of thermally-mature material, plant cell walls and cuticle, recycled palynomorphs, inertinite (chemically-inert amorphous carbon derived from bedrock), amorphous organic matter, fungal hyphae, spores, zoospores, and vesicular arbuscular miccorhyzae. By contrast, the organic material in the H/6, 107” sample is dominated by thermally-mature (charred) material, including charcoal fragments, thermally-mature amorphous material and pollen; there are also some plant cell walls and cuticle, fungal hyphae and spores, amorphous organic matter and very rare insect fragments and algae.
The pollen in the Deep Skull sample (Fig. 8) is dominated by herbaceous taxa, mostly Poaceae, but also Pteropsida, Cyperaceae, Labiatae, Caryophyllaceae, Chenopodiaceae, Ranunculaceae and Rumex. Dryland species include Ericaceae, Casuarina, and Myrica, and upland species include Podocarpus, Prunus, Sterculia, and Quercus. Also present is a wide variety of taxa from mangroves (Acrostichum aureum, Meliaceae, Oncosperma, Rhizophora, Sonneratia caseolaris), swamp forest (Campnosperma, Santiria), and lowland forest (Myristica, Myristicaceae, Rutaceae, Sapindaceae). Ecologically-indeterminate taxa include Euphorbiaceae, Elaeocarpus, and Lycopodium spp. By contrast, the sparse pollen assemblage from the H6, 107” sample is dominated by upland taxa, principally Podocarpus but also Alnus, with some dryland (Casurina, Ericaceae), regeneration (Albizzia) and herbaceous (Cyperaceae, Poaceae, Pteropsida monolete) taxa, and mangrove, lowland and swamp forest taxa are all absent.

The pollen assemblage from the Deep Skull sample appears to be ecologically mixed. The component that includes abundant herbaceous taxa and altitudinally-limited taxa such as Prunus and Alnus might suggest stadial conditions and temperatures below 23°C compared with the present day 27°C. The other component includes back-mangrove, lowland forest and swamp forest taxa suggestive of the kind of local lowland and coastal vegetation that developed at Niah during interstadials and during the Holocene (Hunt & Premathilake 2012; Hunt & Rushworth 2005a; 2005b; Hunt et al. 2007; 2012). In general terms, the flora in the Deep Skull sediment is similar to that of Pollen Zone H-7 of Hunt et al. (2012) about a metre below the Deep Skull find-spot, rather than to the interstadial assemblages in the upper part of the Hell Trench sequence.
The small size of the pollen assemblage from the H/6, 107” sample makes its interpretation uncertain, but it is likely to reflect dry, somewhat open, vegetation. The presence of Albizzia is climatically important, because today this is characteristic of hill and lower montane environments in Borneo between 600 m and 1600 m above sea level with annual temperatures in the range of 24-19º C (Hunt et al. 2012). It is probable, therefore, that the H6/107” sediments were laid down during a stadial. Unlike the Deep Skull assemblage, it appears ecologically ‘unmixed’ and is very similar to the Podocarpus-dominated basal assemblage Pollen Zone H-1 in the Hell Trench (Hunt et al. 2007; 2012), two metres lower than the position of the H/6, 107” sample in the stratigraphy. It is rather different in composition from the pollen assemblages found at the top of the Hell Trench sequence, in monoliths taken from the same approximate altitude and at most 3 m removed horizontally. They indicate that this part of the Hell Trench sequence contains a major interstadial, characterised by abundant mangroves, lowland forest and an assemblage of brackish-water diatoms with signs of climatic deterioration at the very top (Hunt et al. 2007; 2012). The likelihood is that the H/6, 107” sample was located at a slightly higher layer stratigraphically than the Hell Trench monoliths, possibly because of cut-and-fill deposition in the stream channel which laid down Lithofacies 2, and relates to the following stadial.
A-Head The Niah ‘Deep Skull’ and cultural modernity in Southeast Asia

The age and stratigraphical position of the ‘Deep Skull’ have been contentious for many years, but the work of the Niah Caves Project since 2000 has shown that the skull is undoubtedly Pleistocene in age rather than a Neolithic or Metal Age intrusion, and broadly similar in its antiquity to the age of c.40,000 BP indicated by the original 1958 radiocarbon dating (Barker et al. 2007). At the same time, however, as we have described above, ongoing sedimentary, geochemical and palynological studies of the surviving sediments in the West Mouth, and of two archived sediment samples from the original excavations - one directly associated with the skull and another taken a few inches from its findspot - chime with the dating evidence to suggest that the skull is not coeval with the upper part of the Hell Trench sequence, where spatial considerations suggest that it was located. New ABOX radiocarbon dates on charcoal indicate that the channel-fill sediments (Lithofacies 2) here date to around 40,000-47,000 cal. BP, whereas the direct U/Th date for the skull, altitudinally at the same level as these sediments, places it ~32,600-37,800 BP. The channel-fill sediments at this level appear to have been laid down during interstadial conditions, whereas the sediments attached to the Deep Skull contain a mixed assemblage that in part reflects stadial and in part interstadial conditions.

The Harrissons termed the rich assemblage of butchered vertebrate bones mixed with abundant ash and charcoal that they found in the lower part of the Hell Trench and extending to the base of their excavations under the rock overhang the ‘bone and ash layer’. Plotting the grid squares and spit depths of the vertebrate bone fragments in the Harrisson Excavation Archive material has shown that the ‘bone under ash layer’ was primarily located along the channel that carried the Lithofacies 2 ephemeral streams across the front of the West Mouth into the overhang and its sinkhole (Piper & Rabett 2009). Given this stratigraphic context it is unlikely that much of this material was found in situ where it had been discarded. However, the discovery by the Harrissons of several sets of articulated animal bones and the only slight evidence for water abrasion or erosional damage noted by Piper and Rabett in their analyses of the Harrisson vertebrate fauna indicate that the latter had not travelled very far before it ended up in the channel – presumably just 2-3 m down from the cave lip as part of the Lithofacies 2C colluvium, or the same sort of distance from the interior side of the basin, or along the channel itself at the time of stream activity.
It is possible, therefore, that the Deep Skull and the few associated limb bones arrived at their find location through similar slippage from a place of deposition a few metres away, but the evidence discussed earlier suggests that it is more likely that they were found in situ. The presence of the tibia and femur, both substantial limb bones, in more or less direct association with the skull also indicates that substantial fluvial transportation of the human skeletal remains is unlikely. The significant differences in the sedimentology, geochemistry and palynology of the upper part of the Lithofacies 2 channel-fill sediments compared with those of the Deep Skull sediments, along with the dating discrepancies, provide strong hints that the Deep Skull may have been located in some kind of pit dug down from the Lithofacies 4 sediments, sediments that started to be laid down from c.38,000 cal. BP, around the time of the Deep Skull. Pit-digging was certainly widespread across the West Mouth archaeological zone during the formation of the Lithofacies 4 sediments, though those that have survived and been studied by the project appear to have been related primarily to food processing and storage (Barker et al. 2007). The interstadial/stadial mixed pollen assemblage would certainly make sense in terms of a pit fill mixing the Lithofacies 4 surface sediments from which a pit was dug and the upper Lithofacies 2 sediments into which its excavation would have penetrated.
The material derived from cavities in the Deep Skull is visually almost indistinguishable from the sandier sediments from Lithofacies 2, and its sandy texture and particularly the patches of openwork sand are consistent with a broadly fluvial origin, as is the Lithofacies 2 sediment as a whole (Gilbertson et al. 2005; Hunt et al. 2007; Stephens et al. 2005; and see above). This is particularly indicated by the rounding of many components including the sand grains, mudstone clasts and bone fragments and the material with openwork texture. The calcite and manganese induration are diagenetic. Both are common in the cave and in Lithofacies 2 (Stephens et al. 2005). They probably reflect a watertable feature which ran through the skull in the past. The material from the skull is, however, significantly richer in large quartz than Lithofacies 2 sediments, which contain no quartz over 0.2 mm diameter (Stephens et al. 2005; in press). No quartz over 0.2 mm has in fact been identified anywhere in the cave deposits at Niah, although silt-sized quartz of aeolian origin is widespread. The quartz crystals in the Deep Skull sediment sample cannot have been introduced by running water because if so they would have been rounded by transport processes. The most parsimonius explanation, therefore, is that these bright, attractive, crystals were placed in or adjacent to the skull by human agency. The implication is that the skull and other bones, and the crystals, were part of a secondary burial not recognized by the original excavators. The limestone massif of the Gunung Subis, in which the Niah Caves are situated, and the alluvial lowlands around them, are extremely unlikely to have been the source for these crystals, which were almost certainly derived from a granitic igneous rock. The nearest suitable granitic rocks include the summit of Mount Kinabalu and lower altitude locations in Sabah, about 400 km away, isolated massifs in interior Borneo near the Kalimantan-Sarawak border about 200 km away, and the Schwaner Mountains in southwest Borneo about 510 km away (Hutchison 2005; Fig. 1).
Intriguingly, the putative secondary burial represented by the Deep Skull and associated limb bones, and the quartz crystals, may not be the only early example of processing the dead at Niah. A further 27 human cranial fragments were found by Piper and Rabett amongst the archived vertebrate fauna from the deepest levels of the Harrisson excavations, from spits some 10 m to the south of the Deep Skull findspot. A red wash, probably from a tree resin, has been found on the inner surface of some of these (Pyatt et al. 2010). Whether human skulls were used as convenient receptacles for the colouring medium, or were deliberately coloured as part of funerary rituals, cannot be ascertained, but it is noteworthy that the use of pigmentation has been cited as part of the package of behaviours associated with early Homo sapiens in other parts of the world (McBrearty & Brooks 2000).
Recent years have seen a lively debate about the nature and degree of ‘cultural modernity’ amongst the prehistoric inhabitants of Southeast Asia and Australasia, part of the context of course of this volume. Authors such as Brumm and Moore (2005), O’Connell and Allen (2007), and Habgood and Franklin (2008) have suggested that large components of the range of behaviours that have come to be associated with cultural modernity in Europe and Africa (e.g. Bouzouggar et al. 2007; d’Errico 2003; Henshilwood & Marean 2003; Hiscock & O‘Connor 2006; Klein 2000; Vanhaeren et al. 2006; Zilhao, 2007) are rare or absent in the archaeological record of Island Southeast Asia and Australasia. The apparent ‘primitiveness’ of lithic material culture in the region has also been remarked upon (e.g. Pawlik 2010), though there is a rich ethnography for the sophisticated use of non-durable materials by people in the region (e.g. Satterthwait 1986) and many of the ‘culturally modern’ behaviours defined by archaeologists are associated with clothing, which largely seems to have been unnecessary for most indigenous Australasian and Island Southeast Asian people, apart from the Tasmanians during the Last Glacial Maximum (Gilligan 2010, and this volume). There are, however, other signs of cultural modernity in the region, including art, for instance hand stencils from Tasmania (Cosgrove & Jones 1989; Harris et al. 1988) and East Kalimantan (Chazine 2005), and figurative and animal drawings in Thailand (Anderson 2005); bone technology, for instance at Niah from ~45,000 BP (Barker et al. 2007; Barton et al. 2009; Rabett & Piper 2012; Rabett et al. 2006); complex foraging behaviours and plant processing technologies associated with landscape manipulation, reported from Niah (Barker et al. 2007; Hunt et al. 2007; 2012; and see Piper and Rabett, this volume), Papua New Guinea (Summerhayes et al. 2010), New Ireland (Leavesley 2005) and Australia (Mooney et al. 2011); the use of ochre, for instance at Lake Mungo (Bowler et al. 2003) and Kimberley (O’Connor & Fankhauser 2001); and the use of beads, for instance at Devil’s Lair (Dortch 1984) and Cape Range (Morse 1993).
In the contexts of these debates one of the most interesting lines of evidence for cultural modernity is the relationship between people and their dead, which includes the archaeologically-visible processing and sometimes burial of human remains. This is seen early in Africa and the Middle East with the processed skulls at Herto, Ethiopia (White et al. 2003) and burials at Qazfeh and es-Skhul (Vandermeersch 2006) and is also known with some later Neanderthals (Langley et al. 2008; Solecki 1975, 1977). In Island Southeast Asia and Australasia, burial seems to have been part of the human repertoire from very soon after the first signs of human presence in the region, most notably the burial at Lake Mungo associated with red ochre (Bowler et al. 2003; Habgood & Franklin 2008) and the later burials at Willandra Lakes (Grün et al. 2011) and Roonka (Robertson & Prescott 2006). The Niah Deep Skull burial(?) and the cranial fragments reported by Pyatt et al. (2010) may be part of a wider tradition of the cultural treatment of the dead, therefore. Such a tradition has certainly persisted in Borneo through the prehistoric and early historic periods (Barker et al. 2011; Chazine 2005; Cole 2012; Krigbaum 2005; Lloyd-Smith 2009; Szabo et al. 2008), with ethnohistoric and ethnographic reports affirming the long-lived cultural significance of the head (e.g. Freeman 1979; Evans 1990; King 2007; Schiller 2001; Sellato 1994; Schiller 2001; Szabo et al. 2008; Wadley 2004) together with mortuary rituals involving complex processing of the dead and secondary reburial (Metcalf 1991; Nicolaisen 2003; Sather 2003).
A-Head Acknowledgements

This paper draws on the work of a large number of researchers in the Niah Caves Project, but we would like to acknowledge in particular the contributions of Tim Reynolds to our understanding of the Pleistocene archaeology of the West Mouth; of David Gilbertson, Alan Dykes, Helen Lewis, Sue McLaren, Garry Rushworth, James Rose, and Mark Stephens in terms of the geoarchaeology/geomorphology; of Michael Bird, Tom Higham and Alisdair Pike for the dating programme; and of Philip Piper, Ryan Rabett and the Earl of Cranbrook for the zooarchaeology. We would also like to acknowledge the enthusiastic support of the staff of Sarawak Museum, especially its Director Ipoi Datan, and of Barbara Harrisson, without which the Niah Caves Project could never have developed successfully; and the essential financial support of the Arts and Humanities Research Board, Arts and Humanities Research Council, British Academy, British Academy Committee for Southeast Asian Studies, and the Natural Environment Research Council (Radiocarbon Dating Facility, University of Oxford). The paper was written while COH was on sabbatical leave from Queen’s University Belfast in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge. He thanks St John’s College for dining rights and all in the McDonald for their hospitality.

A-Head tables

Table 1.

Lithofacies adjacent to the findspot of the ‘Deep Skull’ in the Great Cave (following Gilbertson et al. 2005 and Gilbertson et al. in press)





Trough cross-bedded silts, sands, diamicts and gravels, containing lenses rich in bone and charcoal; occupying a channel-like feature.

Deposition in an ephemeral streamway; occasional human activity.


Silty diamicts containing bone, charcoal, ash lenses dipping into the cave from the entrance-rampart and interdigitating with Lithofacies 2.

Colluvial deposition in the cave mouth; occasional human activity.


Silty diamict with diffuse gypsum nodules.

Mudflow deposits.


Silty diamict with abundant ash, bone, charcoal; evidence of pit-digging.

Colluvial deposition in the cave mouth; occasional human activity.

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