Rocks and boulders that tell story of early man

Diorama of early man at a stone tool factory at the Lenggong Archaeological Gallery. — Photos: LOW PAY PHON/The Star

RETIRED archaeologist Dr Hamid Mohd Isa pointed to a huge boulder covered in ash that looked almost like clay, and exclaimed: “That is evidence of the Toba volcanic eruption 74,000 years ago.”

It spewed some 3,000 cubic meters of rock and ash and travelled all the way across the Indian Ocean to Kelantan and to present day Kota Tampan in the Lenggong Valley, a township located some 100km from Ipoh city in Perak.

The eruption in Sumatra, Indonesia, literally reduced the global human population.

“In Lenggong, you see these ash coloured rocks in many parts. It tells the story of Malaysia’s pre-history. Kota Tampan is where it all began,’’ Hamid said.

Lenggong is a rustic town in Hulu Perak. In her book Archaeology in Malaysia, archaeologist Prof Emeritus Datin Paduka Zuraina Abdul Majid, described Lenggong as the “Jewel in Malaysia’s archaeological crown” and as “An archaeologist’s dream with enough undisturbed sites for several generations.”

Lenggong is the oldest known site for human activity in Malaysia, as it was part of the migratory route of early man – Homo sapiens – who moved from Africa to Australia.

“You can say that this is like an open museum where discoveries like old cave drawings, skeletons, stone tools, and pottery going back thousands of years have been made, including the Perak Man,’’ Hamid said.

The Perak Man is the skeletal remains of an early man discovered in Gua Gunung Runtuh in 1990.

These discoveries and more have put Malaysia on the world map, as Lenggong Valley became the latest site in the country to be declared a Unesco World Heritage site on June 30, 2012.

Open-air museum

The township of Lenggong is known for its beauty, thanks to its location sandwiched between the mountain ranges of Titiwangsa and Bintang.

But it is also renowned for its outstanding records of Palaeolithic culture of prehistoric civilisation; so it’s not surprising that for people like Hamid, it is an archaeologist’s heaven.

“We found stone tools and an ancient stone tool “workshop” or “factory” of sorts, such as anvil, hammer stone, and core, all in-situ (on site),’’ he said.

Hamid said evidence at the site showed that the place had been abandoned and the presence of ash from the Toba eruption suggested that the community back then had to leave everything behind and flee for their lives.

Kota Tampan is where the Palaeolithic culture was first discovered in 1938, and later in 1954.

But it was only in 1987 that proper chronometric dates and site verification was obtained after a team of archaeologists headed by Prof Zuraina from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) found a new site.

“I was in Gua Niah, Sarawak, before that and was looking for a site that was older than Gua Niah.

“And my research of old records written by Collings (1938) and Sieveking (1958), two British archaeology enthusiasts who found something that resembled stone tools, not natural but man-made, brought me to Kota Tampan,’’ said Prof Zuraina.

Bukit Bunuh

To first-time visitors to the site, the area may look like any other oil palm plantation.

There is nothing spectacular about the place except for its name, Bukit Bunuh or Kill Hill in Malaysia.

But for someone like Hamid, there is a treasure trove of information backed by evidence that comes in varying shapes and sizes.

“These stones and boulders are proof of a meteorite hitting earth 1.83 million years ago,’’ Hamid explained.

“The impact of a meteorite crashing here against the soil and granite produced something called suevite and you can find these rocks everywhere in the area,’’ said Hamid, adding that in 2007 a hand axe embedded in a suevite boulder was found among the surface artefacts.

The sample was sent to Japan for studies and it was revealed that the axe proved human presence in the area prior to the meteorite crash.

So, that explains the stones but why the name Bukit Bunuh?

“An urban legend here is that there was a man and wife who were so poor that they would only become rich if the wife sacrificed herself by allowing the husband to kill her,’’ said geophysicist Shyeh Sahibul Karamah Masnan.

“There is no evidence to back that story but we can vouch for everything else because there’s hard evidence all around us,’’ he added.

Bukit Jawa

Located about 5km away from Kota Tampan is Bukit Jawa.

It is probably best described as the biggest and oldest stone tool factory in Malaysia dating back over 100,000 years.

It was discovered by Prof Zuraina and her team from USM in 1996. It was here that a huge number of stone tools of many shapes and sizes were found.

“At that point of time, the

government was building the Kuala Kangsar-Gerik Highway. After the discovery, Prof Zuraina managed to convince the government to divert the highway and

the site was left as it is,’’ Hamid said.

The discovery of tools, anvil, core and debitage (waste material produced in the making of prehistoric stone implements), showed they were used by the community back then to cut up animal carcases, break their bones and chop wood.

“The tools gave us an idea of the kind of food the people hunted and ate back then, it was quite a discovery,’’ said Shyeh Sahibul.

Lenggong caves

The caves in Lenggong Valley are like a treasure chest waiting to be opened and discovered.

Gua Badak is known for its cave drawings. People often mistook the drawings for those drawn by cavemen thousands of years ago, but it was actually done by the natives who lived in the area about 100 years ago.

“One could describe it as modern art,’’ said Shyeh Sahibul.

He said the natives used charcoal and the drawings looked like they were of the British who came to Malaya then.

To get through Gua Kajang one has to pass through Kampung Geluk’s narrow roads. And it was here that several skeletal remains were found.

“This is what makes Lenggong Valley so special, because of its endless discoveries,’’ said Icomos International Council on Monuments and Sites Malaysia council member Shaiful Idzwan Shahidan.

Shaiful Idzwan, who is also an archaeologist, said that there is still a lot in Lenggong to be covered and the artefacts tell a very exciting story.

“To me, Lenggong is a treasure trove. Where else in the world can you get skeletons, stone tools, pottery and cave drawings from thousands of years ago,’’ he said.

Some other caves include Gua Ngaum and Gua Asar.

Gua Ngaum was discovered by the USM team in 1990 and so named after a tiger was heard roaring outside the mouth of the cave.

Evidence of human remains and stone tools were found here.

The famous Gua Gunung Runtuh where the Perak Man was found however, is off limits to tourists since 2014 because of safety reasons.

Many of the artefacts found in Lenggong Valley are now displayed at the Lenggong Archaeological Gallery in Kota Tampan.

The gallery was completed in 2001 and opened in July 2003.

The highlight is the Perak Man exhibit, which traces the origin and discovery of the find.

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Lenggong Valley , archaeology , Perak Man


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