UNESCO’S Biggest Secret?

An unavoidable stop-over while on the road to Royal Belum, the Lenggong Valley was named Malaysia’s most recent UNESCO World Heritage site six years ago. But few people know about this lost world – and even fewer get to see it.

Perak Man, South-East Asia’s oldest and most complete human skeleton was discovered in the Lenggong Valley’s Gua Gunung Runtuh cave, one of four caves in the region where prehistoric burial sites have been found. Perak Man is radiocarbon dated to around 10,120 BC and identified as an Australomelanesoid, a hominid type occupying the western part of the Indonesia archipelago and continental South-East Asia at the end of the Pleistocene and early Holocene.

After a debut of research just over 100 years ago, and discovery of the Perak Man in 1991, UNESCO status was confirmed in 2012, and six years on, the Lenggong Valley Archaeological Gallery, which houses the permanent exhibition of Perak Man, is being given a major make-over.

INTERVIEW: Sanjai Kumar, Curator, Lenggong Valley Archeological Gallery:

Lenggong Museum Curator Sanjai Kumar
Sanjai Kumar, Curator, Lenggong Valley Archeological Gallery

“We are going to give a new touch because the gallery was first built in 1999 and completed in 2001. With UNESCO declaring this as a World Heritage site, we needed to give a new touch to it. So that’s why, in 2016 we started upgrading it. Previously, we only had two galleries – Gallery A and Gallery B, but currently, as Perak Man is an icon of the Lenggong Valley UNESCO World Heritage site, we are dedicating a single gallery – Gallery C – a newly upgraded gallery – especially for the Perak Man. We are going to have a state-of-the-art facility, where Perak Man will be hanging up, so that people can see him in 360° – a 3D view. He will be covered with bullet-proof glass, and the facility is air-conditioned 24 hours.

What is so special about the Lenggong Valley is that it’s the longest culture sequence in a single locality outside Africa. Our dating starts back over 1.83 million years ago, with the presence of early hominids. And even now, Lenggong Valley is still occupied by humans. So, we have a few cultural sequences happening here, from the Paleolithic period to Neolithic and all the way up to now.

What else is being upgraded at the gallery?

We are renewing the façade. One of the main things is that Lenggong Valley is a prehistoric stone tool workshop. You’re talking about a prehistoric Silicon Valley. There, they produce the latest technologies in telecommunications, but at that time in the Lenggong Valley – about 1.83 million years ago, this was the pinnacle of stone tool making. That was the pinnacle of technology at that time. Most of the tools were made of stone. That’s why our new façade is really dedicated to stone tools.

What kind of international groups come to this centre?

Actually, Lenggong Valley is a “hidden” world heritage site, as we don’t have a lot of foreigners coming in. But we do have certain groups, like those who are specifically interested in World Heritage sites and archaeology. We have a lot of countries, like China, or even Germany and the UK. We have even had teams from Animal Planet, the BBC, and National Geographic, but not many foreigners are coming in, it’s mostly locals.

Where can people stay if they are visiting the site?

Lenggong town has a resort, a guesthouse as well as home stays.

What kind of people visit, and how many visitors do you receive per year?

Most school or university students, but there are also family groups, and tour guides who know about this place. We average 50-60,000 people per year. The peak period is December.

What were the key reasons for this Valley being given World Heritage status?

There are a few factors. One is that this is the longest culture sequence in a single locality outside of Africa. Second is the Perak Man himself, because it is the only skeleton in the world which has been found with a congenital deformity. Other than that, we have found so many Paleolithic tool workshops, and this is part of human technology. We are also able to connect the migration of human beings outside of Africa to Australia. Lenggong Valley was a major stop-over point on the way. Also, most sites that are this old will be changed through geographic or geological reasons, but here, the sites are quite undisturbed, and we can really excavate to see how the people worked using the stone tools.

What are the chances of finding another Perak Man here?

Actually, we can say the research in Lenggong Valley is quite complete, because research here by the British archaeologist named Evans. He was the first curator of the Perak Museum, and following his work, several colonial archaeologists who undertook research here.

When is the new extension opening?

We are planning to reopen in June, as the sixth anniversary of the World Heritage status is on 30th June, so we are aiming for that date.

What else can people do here?

Apart from the gallery, people can visit the open air and cave archaeological sites. The cave site, as well as being an archaeological site, offers adventure tourism, with climbing and caving. At Bukit Bunuh, this is also an interesting place for a 4-wheel drive off-road experience. Last year, a group of 40 4-wheel drive cars came from Kuala Lumpur. There are also mountain bike trails. There are a number of activities that can be undertaken around here. To get to the sites, one has to hike or go with a 4-wheel drive.

How do people find their way?

If they come here to the gallery we have guides that can take them. Either myself or one of my colleagues will take people to the sites on a guided tour. Up to ten people can visit the cave at any one time, so if there are bigger groups, we split them up into groups of ten for the visit. It is advisable to make an appointment one week earlier via phone or e-mail to enter the sites.”


Background

The sites are nestled deep in the north-western jungles of Malaysia’s Perak state. The remains of bronze tools, pots and 11 skeletons were found here in the 1980s and ‘90s, convincing archaeologists that this place was not only a burial ground some 5,000 years ago, but also the proof of an early Bronze tradition in West Malaysia.

This area consists of open-air and cave sites along the Perak River that span all periods of hominid history, from the Palaeolithic era to the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Hand axes found in nearby Bukit Bunuh, the site of a 1.83-million-years-ago meteorite impact, are among the oldest outside of Africa, and suggest that the Lenggong Valley was an extremely early site of hominids’ presence in Southeast Asia.

Historic photo - excavations in Lenggong Valley
Excavation of Gua Gunung Runtuh (GGR) – discovery of Perak Man skeleton

The most important discovery was in 1991 in Gua Gunung Runtuh cave: Perak Man, the region’s best-preserved Stone Age skeleton – and the only one found with a genetic disorder, Brachymesophalangia type A2. The skeleton’s foetal position, surrounded by a cornucopia of objects, suggested to archaeologists that his deformity had elevated him to a well-respected shaman.

Despite its UNESCO status, the Lenggong Valley still doesn’t figure in most Malaysian travel itineraries. The Lenggong Valley Archaeological Gallery can be found in the village of Kota Tampan, a short drive southeast of Lenggong, where visitors are able to see the remains of the Perak Man up close.

It is possible to obtain an access permit to visit the caves, simply by sending an e-mail to the Director of National Heritage Department Central Zone. The process is very straightforward – and free of charge.

PERAK MAN – WELL TRAVELLED

Perak Man is also well travelled, despite his great age of 11,000 years old. A number of years ago, he went to Japan for an exhibition, and late in 2001 he visited Kuala Lumpur.

VISITING GUA GUNUNG RUNTUH – THE “PERAK MAN” CAVE

Excavations 1
Excavation of Gua Gunung Runtuh (GGR)

Gua Gunung Runtuh is located approximately 124 metres above sea level and 75 metres above surrounding secondary rainforest. Gua Gunung Runtuh (GGR) was first excavated in 1990 by a team from USM headed by Zuraina Majid. The excavation at Gua Gunung Runtuh suggests that man occupied this cave for habitation and burial purposes, beginning about 13,000 years ago until 2,600 years ago (Zuraina, 1994, 1996, 2005). This 1990 excavation significantly placed the prehistory of Malaysia on the world archaeological map with the discovery of the Perak Man. Perak Man is oldest and the most complete human skeleton discovered in South East Asia. He was born with a congenital deformity known as Type A2 Brachymesophalangia, which had thus far never been encountered in any prehistoric skeleton in the world. He lived Approximately 10,000-11,000 years ago. He was ceremonially buried in a foetal position, with his legs flexed against his chest. His corpse was laid to rest on a layer of shells and placed around him were some stone tools, meats (wild boar, dear, monkey, monitor lizard, tortoise, muntjac, leopard, gibbon) as well shellfish. His right hand, placed on his shoulder, was found grasping some meat, covered with earth and shell. He died at a ripe old of 40-45 years (at a time when life expectancy was 20-30 years, this was considered rather old). Thus, despite his handicap, he could have enjoyed a respected status for many years as an experienced elder, and would have been knowledgeable on aspects of life, hunting, food gathering, medicine and healing as well as other features of Paleolithic living.

BUKIT JAWA

Bukit Jawa is an open Palaeolithic site 104 meters above sea level, at latitude 50 07.72’ North and longitude 1000 59.55’ East.  It was discovered during a Kota Tampan paleaoenvironmental reconstruction by a team of researchers in 1996. It had been determined from data that any location that is at least 72 meters above sea level and contains river gravel deposits is a potential archaeological site. Evidence here of early human activities dating back to 100,000 to 200,000 years ago come from the discovery of stone tool workshop that used river gravels from the ancient Perak River to produce pebble and flake tools by using anvils, cores and hammer stones, and that are crowded with thousands of debitage in the form of chunks, flakes and chips.

KOTA TAMPAN

Evidence for a Palaeolithic culture in Malaysia was first unveiled at Kota Tampan, an open archaeological site situated at latitude 500 03.31’ North and latitude 1000 58.42’ East and at 101 meters above sea level. Excavation, first started in 1938 and followed in 1954, led to international recognition as the prehistoric site, ‘Tampanian’ of Malaysia. Universiti Sains Malaysia began a systematic and thorough study in 1987 which led to more reliable archaeological data and an accurate chronological dating of the site. The study established that Kota Tampan (KT) was a Palaeolithic stone tool workshop located on a lakeshore and dated to 74,000 years ago (OSL dating). It has become a reference site for Southeast Asian Palaeolithic culture, particularly for its stone tool classification and the technology for their production. A purpose-built exhibition centre, the Lenggong Valley Archaeological Gallery, houses major artefacts, tools and other material discovered around Lenggong Valley and is the showcase for evidence of the earliest human habitation in Malaysia. Other exhibits are located at the open sites of KT 2005.

BUKIT BUNUH

Bukit Bunuh site is located at latitude 50 4.20’ North and longitude 1000 58.48’ East, and is 100 m above sea level.  This site was discovered in 2001. It is geologically and archaeologically significant. The site is now known to have been occupied as early as 1.83 million years ago and abandoned only about 28,000 years ago. The presence of melted impact rocks such as suevite points to a catastrophic meteorite impact about 1.83 million years ago. Stone tools, among them a hand axe, have been found embedded in the impact rocks.  This association is regarded as the oldest evidence for Palaeolithic culture settling into the Southeast Asian region before the impact.

GUA KAJANG

Gua Kajang is one of several caves in Bukit Kepala Gajah limestone massif and it was the site of the first ever archaeological cave excavation, carried out in 1917 by Evans, in Malaysia. The cave is situated at latitude 50 07.57’ North and longitude 1000 58.87’ East at an elevation of 76 metres above sea level. The cave floor had been badly disturbed by guano collectors over time and the walls have been defaced with recent graffiti.  During the 1917 excavation, Evans uncovered fragments of pottery, stone tools, food residues and human skeletal remains. It appears that Gua Kajang had been continuously occupied between 11,000 –  5,000 BP during both the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods. A Palaeolithic burial of a female skeleton (GK1) was dated to around 10,820 ± 60 BP.  She was buried with bifacial and unifacial stone tools and food as grave goods. Approximately a meter away to the southeast of GK1 was discovered another skeleton in what resembled a Neolithic burial (GK2)  7,890 ± 80 BP with food remains, stone tools and pottery. This skeleton was buried at a depth of 20 cm and in an extended position. The accompanying pottery can lay claim to firstly being the oldest recorded pottery in the country, and secondly to be evidence for the continuation of Palaeolithic culture into the early Holocene.  Gua Kajang is an interesting cave with a unique tunnel-like structure together with fascinating  stalagmites  and stalactites.

GUA TELUK KELAWAR

Gua Teluk Kelawar is another one of the caves in the Bukit Kepala Gajah limestone massif. It is situated at latitude 50 07.44’ North and longitude 1000 58.6’ East, and is 76 meters above sea level. Excavation started in 1990 revealed evidence of an early human occupation around 11,000 to 6,000 years ago. A majority of the evidence consists of stone tools such as bifacial and unifacial pebble tools in addition to the animal remains that included the wild boar, the common barking deer (muntjac), reindeer and mousedeer.  These faunal remains suggest that the natural environment surrounding Gua Teluk Kelawar was probably what is there now, a tropical rainforest. A human skeleton (GTK1) probably 8,000 years old was also found in the cave. Buried with it were stone tools and food remains that suggest that the Palaeolithic period in Malaysia extended into the early Holocene. Gua Teluk Kelawar appears to be a rock shelter commonly found in limestone formations in Malaysia.

GUA HARIMAU

Gua Harimau is one of the caves located in Bukit Gua Harimau limestone complex. This cave is at latitude 50 08.77’ North and longitude 1000 58.88’ East and elevated 95 metres above sea level. Gua Harimau was first excavated by Williams-Hunt who revealed it to be a Neolithic-Metal age period burial site. Williams-Hunt uncovered the skeleton of a juvenile, adzes, pottery and food remains. The first radiocarbon dating on archaeological material from Malaysia was carried out on a sample from this site. The result gave an age of 3,450 ± 150 BP. Further studies since 1987 located more burials dated from 4,920 ±- 270BP to 1,760 ± 95 BP. Altogether 11 skeletons were unearthed with grave goods that comprised pottery, stone tools, bark-cloth beater, food remains, a bronze axe with its mould and jewellery such as necklace, bracelet and ear ring fashioned from riverine shells and a stone bracelet. Bronze was first used around 3,000 years ago so this discovery remains the earliest evidence of the Bronze Age in Malaysia.


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Contact: National Heritage Department Central Zone

 +605 7679700

email: tengah@heritage.gov.my

Additional Resource: Excellent BBC report: http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20160518-malaysias-11000-year-old-treasure-trove