Niah Cave’s ‘Deep Skull’—Teenage boy or elderly lady?
In 1958, the remains of a human cranium were discovered in Niah Cave on the island of Borneo, in Sarawak, Malaysia. Dubbed ‘Deep Skull’, it was ascribed an age of about 39,000 years, making it “the oldest modern human discovered in island South-East Asia”.1 It was examined by the prominent British anthropologist Don Brothwell whose conclusions formed the basis for what became the dominant paleontological thinking ever since, namely, that Deep Skull:
- Was that of a teenage boy;
- Had its strongest resemblance to the indigenous people of Tasmania (Australia);
- “Lay within an evolutionary lineage to the ‘Negritoids’.”2
However, recently University of New South Wales Associate Professor Darren Curnoe and a team of researchers have re-examined Deep Skull. “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,” he said.1
As it turns out, the researchers’ analysis overturns many long-held views of Deep Skull. For example, the cranial remains have “few similarities” with the indigenous people of Tasmania. As Darren Curnoe explained, “We’ve found that these very ancient remains most closely resemble some of the Indigenous people of Borneo today, with their delicately built features and small body size, rather than Indigenous people from Australia.”1
And, it seems, it wasn’t a teenage boy after all. As the researchers wrote in their paper in the Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution journal, “We conclude that this individual was most likely to have been of advanced age and female, rather than an adolescent male as originally proposed.”2
As for the ‘evolutionary lineage’ aspects, Curnoe says their study, together with results of recent genetic studies, “presents a serious challenge” to current ideas, adding “We need to rethink our ideas about the region’s prehistory”. Co-researcher Ipoi Datan, Director of the Sarawak Museum, put it this way, “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.”1
Datan also enthused, “It is exciting to think that after almost 60 years there’s still a lot to learn from the Deep Skull—so many secrets still to be revealed.”1
Really? Can one learn so much from cranial fragments—especially when one considers that the ‘message’ from Deep Skull has been so inconsistent? Teenage boy or elderly lady? A resemblance to Tasmanians or Borneans? On the way to Tasmania or simply arrived in Borneo? Evolved from apes or … a descendant of Noah, repopulating the earth in the period since the Great Flood around 4,500 years ago?
The answer of course will depend on whether you take at face value the Bible’s historical eyewitness account. And with people here “from the beginning of creation” (Mark 10:6), there is no room for the notion of ‘prehistory’ of any kind, anywhere, any time.
As James Shreeve, now executive science editor for National Geographic, wrote in his early career, “Everybody knows fossils are fickle; bones will sing any song you want to hear.”3
References and notes
- Smith, D., Ancient “Deep Skull” from Borneo full of surprises, newsroom.unsw.edu.au, 28 June 2016. Return to text.
- Curnoe, D., Datan, I., and 3 others, Deep Skull from Niah Cave and the Pleistocene peopling of Southeast Asia, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, dx.doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2016.00075, 28 June 2016. Return to text.
- Shreeve. J, ‘Argument Over a Woman’, Discover, 11(8):58, 1990. Return to text.