The earliest evidence of human life in the region is a 40,000-year-old skull found in Sarawak’s Niah Caves. But it was only around 10,000 years ago that the aboriginal Malays, the Orang Asli, began moving down the peninsula from a probable starting point in southwestern China.

The oldest evidence of early human habitation in Malaysia was discovered in 2008 when stone hand-axes were unearthed in the historical site of Lenggong dating back 1.83 million years. The earliest anatomically modern humans skeleton in Peninsular Malaysia, Perak Man, dates back 11,000 years and Perak Woman dating back 8,000 years, were also discovered in Lenggong. The site has an undisturbed stone tool production area, created using equipment such as anvils and hammer stones. The Tambun Cave paintings are also situated in Perak. From East Malaysia, Sarawak's Niah Caves, there is evidence of the oldest human remains in Malaysia, dating back 40,000 years. [Source: Wikipedia]

See Separate Article EARLY MAN IN SOUTHEAST ASIA factsanddetails.com

Homo Erectus in Southeast Asia

Homo erectus is believed to have migrated across the land bridges from Southeast Asia as far a Java 1.8 million years ago. There is also evidence that Homo erectus may have survived in Southeast Asia until 25,000 years ago.

Homo erectus had a considerably larger brain than its predecessor Homo habilis, fashioned more advanced tools (double-edged, teardrop-shaped "hand axes" and "cleavers" ) and controlled fire (based on the discovery of charcoal with erectus fossils). Better foraging and hunting skills, allowed it to exploit its environment better than Homo habilis Nickname: Peking Man, Java Man.

Homo erectus lived for 1.3 million years and spread from Africa to Europe and Asia. Paleontologist Alan Walker told National Geographic, Homo erectus "was the velociraptor of its day. If you could look one in the eyes, you wouldn't want to. It might appear to be human, but you wouldn't connect. You'd be prey."

1.83 Million-year-old Stone Tools Found in Malaysia

The oldest evidence of early human habitation in Southeast Asia was discovered in 2008 when stone hand-axes were unearthed in the historical site of Lenggong in Malaysia dating back 1.83 million years. Archeology News reported: Mokhtar Saidin of the Universiti Sains Malaysia Centre for Archaeological Research and his team “found a suevite axe as well as flake and chopping tools in 2008, in rocks churned up by lorries in an area called Bukit Bunuh. The hand-held axe Mokhtar uncovered looked good for slicing hide, cutting meat or dismembering carcasses. [Source: New Straits Times, May 22, 2011, archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.jp <>]

“The Lenggong Valley is home to a number of prehistoric sites, with important archaeological findings. These include Kota Tampan, Bukit Jawa at Kampung Gelok and Kampung Temelong. The most famous archaeological finding in Lenggong is Perak Man, the 11,000-year-old human skeletal remains discovered in 1991. The Lenggong Archaeological Museum at Kota Tampan is a trove of prehistoric Malaya. While the stone age of Lenggong has been well documented and said to go back 200,000 years, the recent tool finds are startling in their age. “I took back the axe to USM and sent it through a CT scan. It read 1.7 to 1.8 million years old,” says Mokhtar, holding up a suevite rock in the oil palm plantation. “We then sent it for fission track dating by the Geochronology Laboratory in Tokyo, which put it down to about 1.83 ± 0.61 million years old. Stone axe head “That makes the tools here the oldest in the world to date. The ones in Africa — the oldest stone hand axe — is 1.5 million years old.” <>

In 2010, Mokhtar found several fragments of bone, including a long bone and a finger, embedded in a suevite rock. He said, “I was here (in Bukit Bunuh) in 1987 and 1989. The area was a rubber plantation, then. It was turned into an oil palm plantation in 2001, and the workers started to terrace the hills... that’s when the stones started coming up.” After checking with a fellow professor, a meteor theory was reached. On checking the area, the theory was right. He tells us a meteor struck the area, which used to be part of Raban Lake, near Kuala Kangsar, about that time. This is metasediment rock in Bukit Bunuh showing meteor impact evidence “Lenggong Valley was all under Raban Lake then. When the meteor hit, it changed the course of Perak river.” The area under excavation is about 400 sq km. Mokhtar and his team started excavations from 2001, and unearthed a Palaeolithic culture. The suevite tools are found in rocks formed in and around impact craters. These rocks are recorded to exist in Europe so far, specifically Germany. There have been reports of similar craters in Langkawi, and the border between Terengganu and Pahang. Mokhtar points out the ridges of the crater, which is about four kilometres in diameter, and totally covered by oil palm trees. <>

“The main criteria for the paleolithic people to settle anywhere is food and water. This old lake must have been ideal. They needed river gravel to make stone tools. “The people who were making these tools, they had the hands-on technology. They knew how to choose which rock, to make what tool. They designed the tools. These people had the knowledge then, 1.83 million years ago,” he muses. “The distance from here to Africa is 1,800km. Maybe they came from Africa. That’s the out-of-Africa theory of homo erectus. Prof Dr Mokhtar Saidin pointing out that the impact rocks are easily unearthed beneath the top layer “Then there is the multiregional theory, where different regions had their own human evolution.” <>

Based on world evidence, some of the oldest hominin homo erectus remains, including tools and teeth, were found in Jawa, Indonesia (1.7 to 1.2 million years ago), Dmanisi, Georgia (1.8-1.7 million years), Longgupo, China (1.8-1.6 million years), and Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania (1.8 million years). He says there is new evidence which gives rise to the possibility that the hominids in Jawa could have come from Bukit Bunuh because of the impact of the meteor. “I think the paleolithic people in Bukit Bunuh —maybe about 1,000 of them lived here — are a new species of modern humans, homo sapiens. “We know now that the Lenggong Valley was inhabited from time to time for more than 1.83 million years. We have the oldest prehistoric settlement in the world after Africa, according to chronometric dating.”

Niah Caves

Niah Caves in Sarawak is an important prehistoric site where human remains dating to 40,000 years ago have been found. Archeologists have claimed a much earlier date for stone tools found in the Mansuli valley, near Lahad Datu in Sabah, but precise dating analysis has not yet been published.

The oldest evidence of human habitation in Southeast Asia is a Niah Cave in northern Borneo. Modern humans lived there 40,000 years ago and ate orangutans, based on the presence of charred bones found in the cave. A skull found in Niah Cave in the 1950s was first described as resembling Melanesians and native Australians. This supports the notion that earlier human species living in the region were absorbed via interbreeding as Homo sapiens spread out of Africa. Ancient genetic markers are found in indigenous groups in the Andaman Inlands, in Malaysia and Papua New Guinea and among Australian aborigines.

In the 1950s and 60s, Niah Cave was the focus of several intense and active archaeological field seasons led by Tom Harrisson, Curator of Sarawak Museum, who excavated a large area on the northern side of the West Mouth. The excavations were admirable for their time, particularly given the considerable logistical difficulties that had to be overcome because of the isolation of the site and the difficulties of working in tropical environments. [Source: ABC.net; Barker G, The Niah Caves Project: Preliminary report on the first (2000) season , The Sarawak Museum Journal, Vol 55(76), December 2000]

Their most notable discovery was a human skull (the so-called 'Deep Skull') uncovered in a deep trench dubbed 'Hell Trench' by Harrisson's excavators because of the heat and humidity in this particular part of the cave's entrance. The skull was approximately at a level where stone tools had been found previously together with charcoal that yielded a radiocarbon date of around 40,000 years ago. But there are doubts about the reliability of the data collected and recorded by Harrisson.

First People in Malaysia

The Malay peninsula was settled in prehistoric times. Archeological remains were found in several caves, some used for dwellings, and other as burial sites as well. The oldest remains were found in Lang Rongrien cave dating 38,000 to 27,000 years before present, and in the contemporary Moh Khiew cave.

Malays evolved from the migration of people southward from present-day Yunnan in China and eastward from the peninsula to the Pacific islands, where Malyo-Polynesian languages still predominate.

The Malays arrived in several, continuous waves and displaced the Orang Asli (aboriginals) and pre-Islamic or proto Malay. Early Chinese and Indian travelers that visited Malaysia reported village farming metal-using settlements.

Combination of the colonial Kambujas of Hindu-Buddhism faith, the Indo-Persian royalties and traders as well as traders from southern China and elsewhere along the ancient trade routes, these peoples together with the aborigine Negrito Orang Asli and native seafarers and Proto Malays intermarried each other's and thus a new group of peoples was formed and became to be known as the Deutero Malays, today they are commonly known as the Malays.

Early Indigenous People in Malaysia

The indigenous groups on the peninsula can be divided into three ethnicities, the Negritos, the Senois, and the proto-Malays. The first inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula were most probably Negritos. These Mesolithic hunters were probably the ancestors of the Semang, an ethnic Negrito group who have a long history in the Malay Peninsula. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Senoi appear to be a composite group, with approximately half of the maternal DNA lineages tracing back to the ancestors of the Semang and about half to later ancestral migrations from Indochina. Scholars suggest they are descendants of early Austroasiatic-speaking agriculturalists, who brought both their language and their technology to the southern part of the peninsula approximately 4,000 years ago. They united and coalesced with the indigenous population.

The Proto Malays have a more diverse origin, and were settled in Malaysia by 1000BC. Although they show some connections with other inhabitants in Maritime Southeast Asia, some also have an ancestry in Indochina around the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, about 20,000 years ago. Anthropologists support the notion that the Proto-Malays originated from what is today Yunnan, China. This was followed by an early-Holocene dispersal through the Malay Peninsula into the Malay Archipelago. Around 300 BC, they were pushed inland by the Deutero-Malays, an Iron Age or Bronze Age people descended partly from the Chams of Cambodia and Vietnam. The first group in the peninsula to use metal tools, the Deutero-Malays were the direct ancestors of today's Malaysian Malays, and brought with them advanced farming techniques. The Malays remained politically fragmented throughout the Malay archipelago, although a common culture and social structure was shared.

Anthropologists traced a group of newcomers Proto Malay seafarers who migrated from Yunnan to Malaysia. Negrito and other Aborigines were forced by late comers into the hills. In this period, people learned to dress, to cook, to hunt with advanced stone weapons. Communication techniques also improved.

Archaeological finds from the Lenggong valley in Perak. Dating to 10,000-5,000 years ago- Neolithic (New Stone Age), show that people were making stone tools and using jewellery. In the Bronze Age, 2,500 years ago, more people arrived, including new tribes and seafarers. The Malay Peninsula became the crossroads in maritime trades of the ancient age. Seafarers who came to Malaysia's shores included Indians, Egyptians, peoples of the Middle East, Javanese and Chinese. Ptolemy named the Malay Peninsula the Golden Chersonese.


Proto-Malay Models

Also known as Melayu asli (aboriginal Malays) or Melayu purba (ancient Malays), the Proto-Malays are of Austronesian origin and thought to have migrated to the Malay archipelago in a long series of migrations between 2500 and 1500 BC. The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Early History, has pointed out a total of three theories of the origin of Malays: 1) The Yunnan theory, Mekong river migration (published in 1889) - The theory of Proto-Malays originating from Yunnan is supported by R.H Geldern, J.H.C Kern, J.R Foster, J.R Logen, Slamet Muljana and Asmah Haji Omar. Other evidences that support this theory include: stone tools found in Malay Archipelago are analogous to Central Asian tools, similarity of Malay customs and Assam customs. [Source: Wikipedia +]

2) The New Guinea theory (published in 1965) - The proto-Malays are believed to be seafarers knowledgeable in oceanography and possessing agricultural skills. They moved around from island to island in great distances between modern day New Zealand and Madagascar, and they served as navigation guides, crew and labour to Indian, Arab, Persian and Chinese traders for nearly 2000 years. Over the years they settled at various places and adopted various cultures and religions. +

3) The Taiwan theory (published in 1997) - The migration of a certain group of Southern Chinese occurred 6,000 years ago, some moved to Taiwan (today's Taiwanese aborigines are their descendents), then to the Philippines and later to Borneo (roughly 4,500 years ago) (today's Dayak and other groups). These ancient people also split with some heading to Sulawesi and others progressing into Java, and Sumatra, all of which now speaks languages that belongs to the Austronesian Language family. The final migration was to the Malay Peninsula roughly 3,000 years ago. A sub-group from Borneo moved to Champa in modern-day Central and South Vietnam roughly 4,500 years ago. There are also traces of the Dong Son and Hoabinhian migration from Vietnam and Cambodia. All these groups share DNA and linguistic origins traceable to the island that is today Taiwan, and the ancestors of these ancient people are traceable to southern China. +

The Deutero-Malays are Iron Age people descended partly from the subsequent Austronesian peoples who came equipped with more advanced farming techniques and new knowledge of metals. They are kindred but more Mongolised and greatly distinguished from the Proto-Malays which have shorter stature, darker skin, slightly higher frequency of wavy hair, much higher percentage of dolichocephaly and a markedly lower frequency of the epicanthic fold. The Deutero-Malay settlers were not nomadic compared to their predecessors, instead they settled and established kampungs which serve as the main units in the society. These kampungs were normally situated on the riverbanks or coastal areas and generally self-sufficient in food and other necessities. By the end of the last century BC, these kampungs beginning to engage in some trade with the outside world. The Deutero-Malays are considered the direct ancestors of present-day Malay people. Notable Proto-Malays of today are Moken, Jakun, Orang Kuala, Temuan and Orang Kanaq. +

Proto Malays, from Yunnan, China?

Anthropologists have traced the migration of Proto Malays, who were seafarers, to some 10,000 years ago when they sailed by boat (canoe or perahu) along the Mekong River from Yunnan to the South China Sea and eventually settled down at various places. The Mekong River is approximately 4180 kilometers in length. It originates in from Tibet and runs through Yunnan province of China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam. [Source: Wikipedia

Inhabitants of early Yunnan may be traced back into prehistory from a homo erectus fossil, 'Yuanmou Man', which was unearthed in the 1960s. In year 221 BC, Qin Shihuang conquered Yunnan and unified China. Yunnan has since become a province of China. They were the ancestors of rice eating peoples, with their culture of cultivating rice spread throughout the entire region. The native name of the Mekong River peoples' home in Yunnan is Xishuangbanna (Sipsongpanna) which literally means "twelve thousand rice fields", it is the home of the Dai minority. Xishuangbanna sits at a lower altitude than most of the Yunnan mountainous ranges. Yunnan women on the street, wearing batik & sarong.

The theory of Proto Malay originating from Yunnan is supported by R.H Geldern, J.H.C Kern, J.R Foster, J.R Logen, Slametmuljana and Asmah Haji Omar. The Proto Malay (Melayu asli) who first arrived possessed agricultural skills while the second wave Deutero Malay (mixed blood) who joined in around 1500 BC and dwelled along the coastlines have advanced fishery skills. During the migration, both groups intermarried with peoples of the southern islands, such as those from Java (Indonesian), and also with aboriginal peoples of Australoid, Negrito and Melanesoid origin.

Other evidences that support this theory include: 1) Stone tools found at Malay archipelago are analogous to Central Asian tools. 2) Similarity of Malay customs and Assam customs. 3) Malay language & Cambodian language are kindred languages because the ancestral home of Cambodians originated from the source of Mekong River. The Kedukan Bukit Inscription of A.D. 682 found at Palembang and the modern Yunnan Dai minority's traditional writings belong to the same script family, Pallava, also known as Pallava Grantha. Dai ethnic (or Dai minority) of Yunnan is one of the aboriginal inhabitants of modern Yunnan province of China.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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