Our knowledge of the origins of anatomically modern humans (AMH) populations has grown significantly over the last decade or so. But despite this progress, several fundamental questions remain to be satisfactorily answered: When, and how many times, did AMH disperse from Africa into Eurasia? What were the key adaptive and cultural developments that led to them settling new and sometimes hostile environments, and in some instances, replacing long-established archaic groups when they did? While DNA evidence has added greatly to our understanding, including interactions between AMH and archaic hominins, answers to such questions will ultimately need to be grounded in archaeological discoveries. 

For over 60 years, the Niah Caves, approximately 60 km southwest of Miri, has been an iconic locality in archaeology. Here, the Harrissons excavated >260 isolated human bones and partial skeletons, mostly from a Neolithic cemetery within the West Mouth of the Niah Great Cave Complex (NGCC), making it one of the richest prehistoric localities in iSEA. Other cave entrances, such as Lobang Tulang, Lobang Hangus and Gan Kira, were also excavated, in addition to several caves beyond the NGCC, such as Kain Hitam and Mangala. Their work amassed considerable evidence for human occupation now known to date c1–50 ka . Subsequent work was undertaken by Z. Majid and a team led by G. Barker, and in the Kain Hitam by a team led by S. Chia. These studies have provided many new insights into sedimentology, dating, palaeoecology, material culture, behaviour and palaeodiet.

While their legacies are impressive, the widespread exposure of the Mt. Subis limestone massif and abundant unsurveyed caves within Niah National Park suggests great archaeological potential still for the area. To assess this, in 2011 we began a program of survey with the Sarawak Museum Department, joined more recently by the Sarawak Forestry Corporation, and in 2017, our first excavations at the Trader’s Cave. The Trader’s Cave is a relict cave standing in isolation from the NGCC, having formed within a meander bend of a cave stream during the Pliocene. It extends in a mostly N–S direction with maximum length c195 m, width c30 m and height c15 m, and occupies an area of >5,500 m2. The Trader’s Cave has been investigated only once in the form of a small trial trench dug by T. Harrisson in 1956 in the northern most (tourist) entrance. He provided no records, and two boxes in contain only natural shell. Until our work starting in 2017, there had been no archaeological investigations in the cavern of the Trader’s Cave, the second largest cave in the Niah Caves after the West Mouth.

Working with the Sarawak Museum Department, during three seasons (2017-2019) we have excavated in two areas of the main passage: the Square-A Complex representing 18 m2dug to varying depths (250-58 cm below surface) and test square Square-B of 1 m2.  The pictures below are from our 2019 field season where we focussed on the SquareA Complex. Work is ongoing.

Our project aims to use new, high quality, datasets collected in situ during excavations at the Trader’s Cave in Niah National Park to attempt to:

  1. Test the single versus multiple wave models and the timing of settlement of island Southeast Asia (iSEA) by AMH. 
  2. Identify cultural adaptations and economic behaviours of the earliest AMH in our region.
  3. Reconstruct the Late Pleistocene climatic and environmental backdrop, testing ideas about the importance of coastal versus terrestrial especially rainforest resources and about environmental change as a factor in cultural innovation.
  4. Reconstruct and assess site formation and cave use by early humans, including building for the first time in a tropical cave setting a 4D geoarchaeological model.
  5. Search for evidence for late surviving archaic humans in northern Borneo.