New Study of Ancient “Deep Skull” Upends History of Borneo

In 1958, a 37,000-year-old skull was discovered in the Niah Cave in Sarawak, Borneo. At the time of its discovery, the skull–which is the oldest modern human remains to be discovered in island South-East Asia–was believed to belong to a teenage boy, and to be related to indigenous Australians. Now, 58 years later, scientists have reexamined the Deep Skull, and found that just about everything known about it is wrong.

The new study of the skull was led by UNSW Australia Associate Professor Darren Curnoe, and is the most detailed examination of the remains ever conducted since prominent British anthropologist Don Brothwell reached his conclusions in 1960. As Curnoe explained in a statement:

Brothwell’s ideas have been highly influential and stood largely untested, so we wanted to see whether they might be correct after almost six decades.

The Niah Cave in Sarawak, Borneo

The Niah Cave in Sarawak, Borneo

And, indeed, Brothwell’s ideas were not correct. Curnoe continues:

Our study challenges many of these old ideas. It shows the Deep Skull is from a middle-aged female rather than a teenage boy, and has few similarities to Indigenous Australians. Instead, it more closely resembles people today from more northerly parts of South-East Asia… with their delicately built features and small body size.

This latter part is particularly important. The Deep Skull has been one of the key fossils to support what is known as the “two layer” hypothesis, which suggests that South-East Asia was settled initially by relatives of Indigenous Australians and New Guineans, and later by farmers from southern China.

Bones from the 37,000 year old Deep Skull from Niah Cave in Sarawak.

Bones from the 37,000 year old Deep Skull from Niah Cave in Sarawak.

Our discovery that the remains might well be the ancestors of Indigenous Bornean people is a game changer for the prehistory of South-East Asia.

If the Deep Skull is indeed evidence of the presence of Indigenous Bornean people 37,000 years ago, then it suggests that they were in fact the earliest people to inhabit the island, and rather than being replaced by migrating farmers, they adopted new farming techniques when they reached the island some 3,000 years ago. In short, the reexamination of the Deep Skull suggests a very long continuity of the Indigenous Bornean people.

Or, as Curnoe surmises:

Our work, coupled with recent genetic studies of people across South-East Asia, presents a serious challenge to the two-layer scenario for Borneo and islands further to the north. We need to rethink our ideas about the region’s prehistory, which was far more complicated than we’ve appreciated until now.