KUCHING: Some 122 human remains from the Niah Cave, which were brought to Nevada, United States, in the 1960s, will be returned to Sarawak in 2019.
State museum director Ipoi Datan said a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed with the University of Nevada in Las Vegas (UNLV) on Mar 8 for the human remains to be handed back.
After the signing, 33 boxes containing the remains were transported by land to the University of Florida (UFL) where they will be kept temporarily until they are brought home two years later.
A second MoU was signed with UFL on March 13 for the temporary safekeeping and consolidation of the collection.
“We are preparing storage facilities to receive the Niah Cave collection. We are still in the midst of constructing the new museum campus, which will have a special space for sensitive artefacts including the Niah Cave collection.
“We will take them back when our facilities are completed in 2019,” Ipoi told a press conference at the museum headquarters here.
He said the collection came from Niah Cave excavations by Tom and Barbara Harrisson from 1947 to 1967, which found numerous stone and bone tools, shells and pottery as well as 262 human burials dating from 40,000 to 1,000 years ago.
Of the burials, 122 were shipped to Nevada in 1966-67 to be studied by physical anthropologists and archaeologists Shelaigh and Richard Brooks. The collection was brought to UNLV after their retirement.
“It was brought there on the understanding that it was given on loan for study purposes. As the rightful owner, we should bring them back to Sarawak for further study and safekeeping,” Ipoi said.
Besides the return of the collection, the MoUs cover research collaboration between the Sarawak Museum and the two American universities, including exchange of staff, students and materials.
UNLV will also provide data and records from previous research on the Niah Cave collection to the museum, while UFL will conduct scientific studies on a subsample of the collection and assist in establishing a suitable repository for the collection in the new Sarawak Museum Campus in 2017 and 2018.
The museum will make use of the main findings from the research in setting up an archaeological gallery at the new campus.
According to Ipoi, artefacts from the Niah Cave showed that it was one of the oldest dwelling places of modern humans in the region.
He said Harrisson discovered the skull of a young girl in 1958 which he dated to around 39,000 years old.
“This is the earliest evidence for the presence of modern man or Homo sapiens in South-East Asia. Later research showed that the skull could be dated to 42,000 years old.
“This is an important discovery which catapulted Sarawak onto the paleontological map of the world,” he said.
The skull is in the Sarawak Museum’s collection while the human remains to be brought back from America are believed to be around 20,000 years old.