Guar Kepah prehistoric finds
Tracing a lost people who once inhabited Seberang Perai thousands of years ago
Sometime in the early 1800s, settlers living around three adjacent pastures in northern Seberang Perai kept coming across giant protuberances on the earth in the vicinities. What made the hilly knolls peculiar was that they were found to be filled with thousands upon thousands of seashells.
The villagers and farmers called the area Guar Kepah. Literally, it meant ‘mound of clam shells’ in the native Malay dialect.
These folks must have found it strange that seashells should be lying abundantly, in massive heaps up to six metres in height, more than ten kilometres from the nearest shoreline.
It was only around 1860, when British colonial officers heard from locals about the strange heaps of shells, that their real significance came to light.
Struck with curiosity, Penang’s resident councillor, George Windsor Earl, set about to investigate. The mission that he initiated was to be the first archaeological venture undertaken in British Malaya. The findings made under Earl and the subsequent excavations in later years revealed that the mounds were not at all natural but wholly artificial.
They were in fact middens – piles of objects deposited cumulatively by a society in the distant past. The word ‘midden’ was originally used in the old Norse language to mean ‘refuse heap’.
Shell middens left by prehistoric people have been found in several historic parts of the world – such as the Blombos cave in South Africa, Milingimbi island in Australia, Natsushima in Japan and Chilca canyon in Peru. Each of these places revealed precious artefacts that have given rich insights on how human societies lived in the past.
Like these sites, the remains in Guar Kepah pointed to a bygone community of hunter-gatherers. They lived more than 5,000 years ago, making them – in a manner of speaking – the earliest known people of Penang.
They were also the only Neolithic-era humans recorded by archaeologists to have subsisted in a coastal marine environment in this part of Southeast Asia. The shores of the Straits of Malacca had been more inland then than what we see today.
The middens of Guar Kepah were huge. Some were said to have reached heights of six metres. The artefacts they contained were related to human burial, daily diets and common implements. Archaeologists found human bones and teeth, tools like stone-knives, pottery and simple ornaments, as well as food remains such as fish bones, mammal bones and teeth.
Among the most fascinating relics were about 40 full human skeletons uncovered during archaeological digs conducted in the 1930s. The skeletons belonged to individuals who had been buried in middens, indicating that these ancient people of Guar Kepah had fairly complex enculturation, with special rituals and customs.
The forty-odd skeletons were taken to the Nationaal Natuurhistorisch Museum (National Museum of Natural History) in Leiden, Holland, where they have been kept since. It was reported recently that the Malaysian government has initiated a move to ask for the return of these skeletons from the museum.
Unfortunately, many of the middens in Guar Kepah disappeared or were destroyed due to lack of protection by the local authorities after Malaysia’s independence in 1957. The mounds were damaged by shell mining and irresponsible development undertaken by locals.
By the time the latest archaeological venture – led by Prof Dato’ Mokhtar Saidin (picture below) of the Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) Centre for Global Archaeology Research – began in January 2010, many of the artifacts were already lost.
Of the three sites, one had a road built over it and another was already engulfed by a village. The third and sole surviving site where the USM team worked had middens that were reduced to only about a metre in height.
This site is located among a plantation of fruit trees bordered by paddy fields, some eight kilometres from the town of Kepala Batas. The USM expedition found teeth and bone fragments of animals like turtles and wild hogs, together with stone tools and pottery, among the shells here.
The age of the site was determined through radiocarbon dating techniques to be about 5,500 years old.
A plan has been mooted to build an archaeology gallery at the site to exhibit and help preserve the historical riches that have been found here, and to also serve as an educational and historical centre.
While a good deal has been recorded by archaeologists of these nameless people who once lived in Guar Kepah with their kinsfolks and families, much has also been lost. The destruction of the numerous middens has led to the tragic disappearance of precious untold legacies left behind thousands of years ago by the earliest settlers to thrive on the land we know today as Seberang Perai.
Written by Himanshu Bhatt
Photographed by Himanshu Bhatt & Adrian Cheah