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22 April 2007
3,000 years ago Malaysia was a pottery-making hub

From about 3,000 until 2,000 years ago the Semporna peninsula (Malaysia) was a late Stone Age population hub and craft centre. Experts from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), the Sabah Museum Department and the Department of Natural Heritage have found millions of sherds which show that the Bukit Tengkorak archaeological site about five kilometres from Semporna town was one of the largest, if not the largest, pottery making sites in Island Southeast Asia (SEA) and the Pacific during the Neolithic era.
     Their findings have overturned some theories about how prehistoric people lived and traded in the region. Until the excavations here, archaeologists believed that long-distance sea trade and migration of people in insular SEA and the Pacific moved east from Melanesia to Polynesia, leaving behind what is known as the 'Lapita culture' of pottery, stone tools and ornaments.
     "Our research at Bukit Tengkorak shows that 3,000 years ago, people were not only moving east towards New Britain in Melanesia but also westwards towards Sabah," explains Dr Stephen Chia of USM’s Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia. "This is one of the longest trading routes in the world during the Neolithic period," says the archeochemist who found obsidian at the site and traced it chemically to Talasea in New Britain, 3500 kilometres away.
     The Lenggong Valley in Perak was Malaysia's earliest centre of habitation over 100,000 years ago, notes Heritage Commissioner Datuk Professor Zuraina Majid. But 15 years of research, several PhD theses and four archaeologists studying the Semporna peninsula "point to another hub, attracting people from 72,000 years ago until now. Another site near Lahat Datu might be close to 100,000 years old, based on the stone tools found there. We are filling in the whole prehistoric sequence as we progress in our research, adding to knowledge of Early Man here — the way he made stone tools, pottery and metal, his adaptation to his surrounding, his subsistence activities, his contacts with the surrounding islands, exchange of ideas, etc.," she says. "All this made East Sabah a lively hub of previously unknown activity in the Southeast Asian region."
     "The significance of this site is the witness of the exchange and movement of prehistoric people and material culture between Southeast Asia and the Pacific," says Professor Rasmi Shoocongdej of Bangkok's Silpakorn University. "It is very difficult to identify prehistoric pottery-making places," adds Kazuhiko Tanaka at the Institute of Asian Cultures in Tokyo’s Sophia University. "Bukit Tengkorak is one of the rarest examples of such sites."
     Chia has set himself three tasks: Locating prehistoric settlements in Semporna and along Sabah’s southeastern coast, mapping ancient sources and trade routes of Neolithic obsidian artifacts and pottery between Bukit Tengkorak, Island SEA and the Pacific, and finding the origins and factors leading to the contact, trade and movement of prehistoric people. He has already answered some questions about why Bukit Tengkorak, on the rim of a two-kilometre-wide volcanic crater, was probably chosen as a pottery making site: Its height and strategic location next to the coast made it a landmark easy to find, while its panoramic view served as a lookout for traders and enemies coming from either the Semporna Peninsula or the Sulawesi sea.
     The team have found five promising new sites in Semporna. Last month, they started surveying Bukit Kamiri, with a similar environment (natural wind tunnel, boulders for shelter and plenty of raw material, water and food supplies) with similar pottery and stone tools. "If we can find a third site like this, it could really support what were the factors and reasons for choosing a site for pottery making and for burial as well," says Chia.
Source: NST Online (22 April 2007)

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