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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Perak Man (1) -The oldest human skeleton found in Malaysia

Perak Man

A road in the lush greenery surrounding Lenggong.The oldest human skeleton found in Malaysia was in the state of Perak in Peninsular Malaysia. Its exact location is at Gua Gunung Runtuh, a cave of his final resting place situated in Bukit Kepala Gajah or Elephant's Head Hill in the Lenggong Valley of Ulu Perak. The skeleton was a male with a height of approximately 157cm, aged 50s. It was discovered in 1991 and the skeleton has been dated to around 11,000 years old. In 2004, another skeleton was found at Gua Teluk Kelawar in Lenggong, Perak by a team of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) archaeologists. This time it is a 'Perak woman' of 148cm in height and was believed to aged 40s.

The Perak Man dates to about 11,000 years before present, and is one of the most complete skeletons for this time period in this region.

He was buried in the fetal position, ie. with legs tucked towards chest, his right arm touching shoulder and his left arm bent so that his hand would rest on his stomach. Besides that, they found deposits of animal bones at right shoulder, to his left and to his bottom, and deposits of stone tools around the body. They also did not find any other burials in the cave.

Forensically speaking, the Perak Man was probably a man – we can’t tell for sure because his pelvis wasn’t well preserved. That’s the surest way you tell whether a skeleton was male or female, but a lot of the other bones exhibited strong male characteristics so he was probably Perak Man rather than Perak Woman. He shared the characteristics of an australomelanesoid, which is the kind of humans you find in Australia, Papua, Indonesia and some parts of Malaysia. He wasn’t very tall, he stood about 154 cm, which is about 5 feet. The bones that were found deposited near him were identified to have come from wild boar, monkey, monitor lizard and something called the rusa, which is a kind of deer, and are thought to be food deposits. As for the stone tools, there were about ten of them scattered around the body, and most of them were pebble tools and some hammer stones.

There were two significant facts about the Perak Man skeleton. The first was that he had a malformed left hand, meaning his left arm and hand were much smaller compared to his right arm and hand. This deformity could be from a genetic disorder known as brachymesophalangia. This evidence is further supported by the fact that his spine is curved towards the right due to living with only one good hand. The second interesting fact about the Perak Man was that despite his handicap, he lived to be about 45. This is considered a ripe old age for his time period. And especially when you consider that he might have been a hunter-gatherer, 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 exceptional.

What does all this tell us about the Perak Man and the society he lived in? One conclusion that the study made was that he must have been a pretty high-up member in that society because the burial was very elaborate. They dug a pit, and then put him into the pit and then placed the food offerings, and then covered him with small shells, and then place more offerings and tools, and then another shell layer, followed by a final dirt layer. That was pretty labour intensive – when there tends to be a lot of labour and a lot of time invested into a burial, it’s not unreasonable to infer that this person was someone of high importance. Also to support that theory, he was 45 years old and he was very old for a person from that time period with a disability as well. If you were in a hunter-gatherer society and you couldn’t hunt very well, people had to take care of you – and people don’t take care of you unless you were respected or there was some sort of hierarchy in place where he was respected. That’s another reason to support the social hierarchy theory. And of course there was burial with grave goods – there were food offerings and tool offerings and that’s another indicator of social hierarchy. People who get buried with burial deposits often tend to be people of higher status.

You just have to think about the pyramids which are basically big tombs, and all the treasures that were entombed in the pyramids to get an idea of social hierarchy. Of course, it’s a bit premature to say all of this about the Perak Man and his society. We should take this with some caution because we don’t have anything to benchmark with.

The sources used for this article was the museum itself and from the book called The excavation of Gua Gunung Runtuh and the Discovery of the Perak Man in Malaysia, edited by Zuraina Majid.

Museum Lenggong

Perak Woman
Perak Woman was found more recently in 2004. This is an 8000 year old skeleton found in Gua Teluk Kelawar in Lenggong.

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