13 March 2011

A Crippled Hunter-Gatherer and a Feisty Woman

Finding 'Perak Man' at Elephant's Head Hill

In 1990-91, Malaysian archaeologists discovered the grave of an 11,000 year- old human buried in a cave at a place called Elephant's Head Hill -- one of many limestone hills amid dense tropical forest in the Lenggong Valley in the state of Perak.  Hence, the skeleton (the most complete Palaeolithic remains ever discovered in Southeast Asia) was named 'Perak Man'.*  His cranium and limbs displayed Australo-Melanesian characteristics similar to those of aboriginal peoples in Australia, Papua, Indonesia and some parts of Malaysia today.**

'Perak Man'  would have stood about 157 cm (ca. 5') tall, and was 40-45 years old when he died -- a ripe old age for a hunter-gatherer.  He had been given a decidedly up-market burial.  His body was curled in the fetal position, i.e. with legs tucked towards chest, his right arm touching shoulder and his left arm bent so that his hand would rest on his stomach.  In and around his hands were at least five kinds of meats: yummy pig, deer, monitor lizard, tortoise, and monkey.  The corpse and foods had been covered by thousands of shells of small river molluscs, with selected larger shells put nearest the dead man.  Ten pebble tools and stone hammers lay above the shells, followed by another shell layer and a final dirt layer. 

A lot of labour went into sending the old man off in high-style.

This elaborate burial is even more exceptional because 'Perak Man' suffered from a congenital deformity, Brachymesophalangia 2A (the only prehistoric skeleton known to have this disorder): he had a malformed left hand, meaning his left arm and hand were much smaller compared to his right arm and hand; and his spine curved towards the right due to his living with only one good hand.  

So, that up-market burial was for an old man who probably couldn't ever have earned his keep: with only one good hand you can’t really hunt or gather very well and so living to 45 with that kind of handicap is pretty astonishing.  

Feisty Woman Meets 'Perak Man'

As I brushed away the dirt, a reverential feeling overcame me. Although he had been buried thousands of years, I felt both respectful and uncomfortable. 

The very first Malaysian archaeologist, Professor Datuk (an honorary Malay title) Zuraina Majid, founder and first Director of the Centre for Archaeological Research at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, had previously proved that Homo sapiens occupied Perak state some 74,000 years ago, which meant that the penninsula was the gateway that man had used to migrate to Australia and beyond.** This unprecedented discovery put Malaysia in the archaeological limelight and quashed the belief that the region was a backwater of civilisation:
This was our first foray into the Lenggong valley which I had identified as a hotbed of prehistoric activity. At the time, prehistoric archaeology of Malaysia was almost a blank slate. By identifying ... a stone tool workshop and identifying many artefacts as failed attempts at stone tool creation, I got a glimpse into the mind of prehistoric man as they engaged in trial-and-error experimentation to create the best tools with the materials they had.
Armed with a PhD in anthropology in the 1970s, the only person in Malaysia with such qualifications at that time (M.A. Cambridge, PhD Yale), Zuraina made it her goal to develop the field so that Malaysia would no longer be regarded as a laggard in archaeology. 

“Three decades ago, I started off with the mission to develop the field of Malaysian archaeology and to train a future generation of Malaysian archaeologists. Throughout the journey, I never had time to think of myself apart from the work at hand.  It is a special job – building up a nation’s past.  It is a serious job that has to be grounded in evidence as it has to stand up to the international scrutiny of professionals.”

What's so fascinating about archaeology?
Archaeology is wonderful because our discoveries are not stand-alone pieces of information to be filed away in a library. Each piece of research is like a jigsaw piece that contributes towards a big picture of understanding our deep past. We are like detectives, reconstructing the past to solve mysteries of time. 
When she and her team discovered Perak Man (that's her seated on the right side of the trench in the top photo), they also put the 'missing piece' into the jigsaw of the spread of mankind from mainland Asia to Indonesia and Australia.  This virtually-complete skeleton could be compared with other prehistoric to modern examples from Southeast Asia and Australia.  Dental and cranial studies demonstrated that Perak man's closest affinity was to the Australian aborigine and it now seems clear that Perek Man and other prehistoric people originated in that area in the Late Pleistocene.  They are, in short, the ancestors of modern Southeast Asian and Australian aboriginal people. 

Zuraina says quite rightly, "Archaeology may largely deal with the dead in our remote past -- but the human connection is very much alive."

In 2006, Zuraina, then Professor Emeritus (sic, but her honorary title of Datuk is masculine, too) was appointed to her current position of Commissioner for the National Heritage Department of Malaysia.  As such, she is the person ultimately responsible for the protection of all historical buildings and sites throughout the country.  Less gravely, she's also charged with safeguarding genuine Malaysian food lest it be hijacked by culinary pirates.***

Now, just in time for International Women's Day (March 8th), came this breaking news:

For the first time, Malaysia will be standing for a seat in the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) and, if successful, she will be represented by none other than Prof. Emeritus Datuk Zuraina Majid.

The WHC has the final say on whether a natural or cultural property is of sufficiently outstanding universal value to be inscribed on the World Heritage List, and -- of huge importance nowadays -- it monitors the conservation of every such listed property.  In addition, as her cherry on the cake, with any luck, the Lenggong Valley (Zuraina's 'golden valley') will make the grade to be listed in 2012.

Announcing Malaysia's bid, the spokesman for the Information, Communication and Culture Ministry assured possibly sceptical Committee members that
... Prof Zuraina and her team will be able to withstand the mental strain of very long days of tough discussions, which I am told can go on for as long as a fortnight.
May I assure the Minister, in turn, that the rigours of committee meetings are little or nothing compared to the sweat and grime of archaeological digs, and roughing it out for weeks on end in the deep jungles of Malaysia.

So, Zenobia salutes Prof. Emeritus Datuk Zuraina Majid, the first archaeologist of Malaysia, and wishes her well in her quest for a place at the top.  She has brought together three of my four most favourite things:

1. Archaeology.  I quote her:"The excitement of being first to see and touch an artefact after it has lain buried for thousands of years is adrenaline plus!"  Anyone who can say this is my kind of person.

2. A feisty woman.  To those who claim that archaeology is 'a luxury a developing country can't afford', she ripostes: "If we allow this narrow view to gain currency ...  we will know neither our origins nor the struggles and successes of our ancestors that shaped our cultural heritage."

3. A mystery dig.  After all, we haven't yet answered the question as to why the crippled hunter-gatherer, Perak Man, was given such an extraordinary burial.  

Yes, yes, I know, my first thought too was 'Shaman!' 

But proving it is another matter entirely.

(posted with a special nod to Women's History Month)

* Because the pelvis, most helpful for determining sex, was in very poor condition, it is not quite certain that the skeleton was male but other bones did exhibit strong male characteristics.   In 2004, another skeleton was found in Lenggong, this time decidedly 'Perak Woman',  148 cm in height and aged in her 40s.  Her funeral repast consisted of yukky rat, monkey and iguana.

**  Before 10,000 years ago, the Malay peninsula formed the western part of the huge and now partially drowned subcontinent of Sundaland, which must have served as a land connection for ancient movements of population from Asia into Indonesia, and ultimately Australia.

*** In case you were wondering, the heritage stamp of approval has gone to yee sang, mooncakes, Penang char kway teow, air batu campur, rendang, laksa, nasi lemak, teh tarik, putu mayam and roti canai.  A committee is still mulling over  pulut kukus periuk kera (glutinous rice cooked in monkey pot plants) and ikan panggang tanah liat (grilled fish wrapped in clay).  Zuraina confesses, “I myself did not know about pulut kukus periuk kera.”

For this post, I have made use of Stephen Chia & Zuraina Majid, 'The Conservation and Preservation of Perek Man from Gua Gunung Runtuh Site in Lenggong, Perak, Malaysia', available online through the Universiti Sains Malaysia; and several newspaper articles published by The Star Online.  My thanks, too, to Johan Arif of the blog Hanjorifa.


Top: The grave of Perek Man on Elephant's Head Hill. Photo from The Star Online. Credit: THAM AI MEI.

Middle: Perek man reassembled and on display in Lenggong Museum (the purple-coloured silica gel containers keep the humidity low).  Photo via IpohWorld

Below: Photo from the blog of A.F. Yassin.

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