Prehistoric Niah skeletal collections returning home from US

KUCHING: Prehistoric skeletal collection from the Niah Cave taken to the United States in the 1960s are on their way back to Sarawak.

The remains, comprising 122 bone fragments, are expected to arrive on Friday (Mar 6), after the process to ship them back started last month.

Their arrival would conclude a three-year effort since the state Museum Department signed a memorandum in 2017 with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for the collection to be handed back.

The bone collection was then transferred to the University of Florida, also in 2017, for temporary safekeeping and consolidation.

“This is the homecoming of the Niah skeletal remains from the University of Nevada. It’s been a long journey and indeed we are blessed that we still have this collection in good condition.

“It’s on the way back, and this is for the people of Sarawak,” Assistant Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture Datuk Sebastian Ting said after opening a seminar on the return of the remains here on Thursday (Mar 5).

He said the collection would be housed in the new Sarawak Museum Complex’s storage facility, where they can be further studied by researchers.

“This invaluable historical and cultural heritage tells us about past human activities and also reflects a nation’s civilisation.

“The protection and preservation of these heritage assets are a priority and Sarawak is committed to this,” he said.

University of Florida lecturer Dr John Krigbaum said ongoing research on Niah’s prehistory would be enhanced through reuniting the Nevada collection with other cave materials in the Sarawak Museum.

“We are very pleased to have the materials from the University of Nevada finally come home to Sarawak. At the University of Florida, we had the privilege to take care of these materials, study them and prepare them for their long journey home.

“Research is ongoing and we should have results in the next year or so. We do know that there is a lot to learn now that the two assemblages are unified again,” he said.

Krigbaum said the research included looking at diet and subsistence, ancient DNA analysis and burial features at Niah.

“Now that we have the two assemblages together, we can start to pare down what are true burial features and what is just a bone here or there.

“The remains date from maybe 12,000 years ago to about 2,000 years ago. We’re talking about humans who were using the cave for cave activities early on, about 10,000 years ago, and then mostly using the cave later on for ritual purposes and a cemetery,” he said.


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