Many associate the Niah Caves in Miri with the discovery of 40,000-year-old Deep Skull by Tom Harrisson in 1958. This discovery put Sarawak on the world map in the pre-historic research field, and as one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. But what many do not know is that this discovery had also initiated a chain of important events. One discovery led to another, researchers continue to carry out further excavation works and study the archaeological materials recovered at this world-famous site ever since.
One of the important discoveries is the skeletal collection recovered from the West Mouth in Niah Cave, a collection of 122 bone fragments from the Neolithic era cemetery dating back between 4500 and 2000 years, which somehow ended up in the United States of America for 53 long years until mid-March 2020.
The question remains: How did these important archaeological materials stay in the US for such a long time?
The story of Niah Skeletal Remains began in the mid-1960s, when biological anthropologist Dr Shaleigh Brooks and archaeologist husband Dr Richard Brooks were invited to assist Barbara Harrison with the excavation on these West Mouth burials and lead specialised biological anthropology analysis on the human skeletons.
Excavation works ended in 1967, resulting in the shipping of a fair number of these burial features (60-70% of the assemblage) to Las Vegas, Nevada via ocean freight. To be exact, 112 skeletal remains were ‘on loan as Sarawak Museum property’ to the University of Nevada for research purposes, where the Brooks at that time were starting their new jobs.
The shipments containing these skeletal remains were sent in two batches. The first shipment in 1966 included 11 boxes containing the skeletal remains, while the second shipment (1967) contained 19 boxes of skeletal remains, along with soil samples, books, and ethnological specimens. Altogether, 30 boxes arrived safely on Feb 14, 1967 and kept at the Social Science Division in University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).
The skeletal remains stayed in Las Vegas for a while, with the Brooks at their home for them to conduct their research findings, which resulted in the publishing of several important papers in the late 1960s and 1970s.
John Krigbaum (then a graduate student at New York University), approached the Brooks in 1994 and began enquiring about the ‘on loan’ status of these Niah Cave skeletal remains. In 1998, he managed to convince the couple to transfer these remains to a more suitable place for curation and study, in a lab located at the Department of Anthropology, UNLV.
Over the last few decades, Sarawak Museum Department has made several initiatives to bring back the ‘lost assemblage’ of the Niah skeletal remains. But the two events that prompted real discussions on bringing back these remains were the June 2004 visit by Prof. Emeritus Datuk Zuraina Majid at UNLV and the keynote speech delivered by The Right Honourable Tun Pehin Sri Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud during International Bornean Archaeology Seminar. In his speech, the former Chief Minister expressed Sarawak’s earnest interest to bring back the State’s archaeological treasures from abroad, particularly Niah Cave Skeletal Remains for future generations to view and conduct further research and analysis on.
Discussions on possible repatriation process happened in 2016 at UNLV. Led by Sarawak Museum’s former director, Ipoi Datan, with the presence of Dr. Debra L. Martin from University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Dr John Kirgbaum, University of Florida (UF)’s archaeologist, it was agreed upon discussion that UNLV would pass the boxes to the UF for the purpose of documentation, inventory and conservation. Another reason why the bone collections had to be transferred to UF was because Florida’s climate stability was similar to Malaysia’s.
The second delegation visit took place on March 8, 2017. This time, two Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) were signed to officially release the boxes to UF. For three days straight, Mohd Sherman bin Sauffi (Assistant Curator of Archaeology, Sarawak Museum) and Dr. Krigbaum transported the 122 precious skeletal remains across seven states in the US, from Nevada to Florida.
In preparation for their long journey home to Sarawak, detailed inventories and careful packaging of the remains commenced in late 2019, facilitated by facilitated by UF students Ashley Deutsch and Rachel Lotze under Dr. John Krigbaum’s supervision. By March 7, 2020, just in time before the Movement Control Order (MCO) took effect, all 122 skeletal remains excavated at West Mouth, Niah Caves safely returned to Sarawak, finally reunited with their parent assemblage, after half a century being abroad.
Sarawak Museum plays a vital role in continuing to maintain and preserve its archaeological collections for future archaeologists to conduct research on. With the planned renovations and expansions of the Sarawak Museum through the upcoming Borneo Cultures Museum, Sarawak Museum is working closely together with local and international universities to study the skeletal remains further. This is in line with Sarawak Museum Department’s vision to be ‘a globally engaged museum of history and heritage centre’.
Note: Archaeologists can study further these Neolithic burials in Barbara Harrisson’s ‘A Classification of Stone Age Burials from Niah Great Cave, Sarawak’, from The Sarawak Museum Journal, Vol. XV, No 30-31 New Series.