Ancestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

For some reason, I’ve always had an interest in human evolution and how we got here. So when the guidebook told me that the oldest human remains in SE Asia were found in a nearby cave, I could feel a day trip coming on.

The Niah Caves are about an hour and 45 minutes from Miri (in a cab)… Evidence shows that the skull they found there in the 50s dates back 38,000 years and the caves were inhabited right up until the 14th century. These days it just the bats and swiftlets.

The West Mouth
The West Mouth

There are a number of caves and a path leads us from one to the other. As I wander, it’s amazing to think that humans have been knocking around in these caves for the best part of 40,000 years.

The caves get more impressive as we go. The traders cave is just a taster and show us that the birds nest industry has attracted more recent humans. At over US$2,000 a kilo you’d probably get me hanging off the ceiling too.

Trader's Cave
Trader’s Cave

Next up is the Great Cave, it’s size is something else. The roof is 75 metres high in places and before midday you can see the sunbeams shining through. The floor feels like a Martian landscape, all very surreal.

Sunbeams in the Great Cave
Sunbeams in the Great Cave

From there, it’s a 10 minute walk through the darkness (don’t forget your head torch) to the painted caves – the pièce de résistance. The dead were put here in boat shaped coffins or “death ships” to take them to the next world.

The Painted Cave. Inset: One of the paintings
The Painted Cave. Inset: One of the paintings (don’t think Van Gogh’s got much to worry about)

It was a long day with a lot of walking, but an experience well worth having. So if you’re in the vicinity and don’t mind getting covered in sweat and bat shit, get yourself down there.

And not forgetting the playlist:

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