In pursuit of Perak Man, Malaysia’s prehistoric bomoh

As Asraf led me down a narrow, barely visible footpath through the dense forest thicket, he nonchalantly mentioned that local villagers had spotted a couple of tigers in the vicinity earlier this year.

Not exactly what I’d wanted to hear at the start of a day-long forest excursion, I quietly hoped we wouldn’t soon become tiger food. But thankfully my soft-spoken, yet knowledgeable tour guide’s interesting tidbits about the historic region kept me from wondering about the apex predator’s meal preferences.

We were traversing the jungles and cave complexes trodden upon by prehistoric man. They might be long gone but their echoes live on in their many burial sites, stone tools, ornaments and cave art that have been discovered in the archeological treasure trove that is the Lenggong Valley, in Perak.

A hidden gem, it’s about 40km from Kuala Kangsar, the nearest major town. The drive there is an absolute treat to the senses, with the well-maintained roads cutting right through the magnificent Belum-Temengor forest, which boasts the largest continuous forest complex in Peninsular Malaysia and home to the oldest rainforest in the world.

The writer pointing to the spot where Perak Man was found, in a cave in the Lenggong Valley.

Lenggong Valley is Malaysia’s fourth and least known Unesco World Heritage Site. And that’s a real shame as it is of brobdingnagian value and has much to offer.

Its biggest offering and crown jewel was where Asraf was leading me. It was safely tucked away in a secluded, difficult-to-access cave called Gua Gunung Runtuh which we reached after a 45-minute walk and hike, with the final ascent being especially challenging, requiring ropes to pull ourselves up a farrago of rocks, dirt and root systems.

But it was all worth it when we entered the dark, damp and cool cave. A sliver of sunlight from the cave’s entrance reflected off the arrestingly beautiful stalactites and stalagmites that adorned it, eerily illuminating and endowing it with an aura of mystique.

It wasn’t an especially large cave but its seclusion meant that whatever was buried here largely maintained its fidelity as it was undisturbed by the elements, perhaps exactly as intended by the prehistoric men who buried it here.

After a few short, tentative steps, Asraf pointed his flashlight, illuminating a carefully excavated pit on the left side of the cave, barely a few feet away.

After a pregnant pause, he said: “This is where Perak Man was buried”.

I could barely contain my excitement. At long last, I was at the burial site of Perak Man, Malaysia’s most famous archeological find and the most complete human skeletal remains discovered in all of Southeast Asia. He was buried around 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, at this very spot, a few feet from where I was now standing.

The remains of Perak Man at the Lenggong Valley Archaeological Gallery.

In addition to being Perak Man’s final resting site, Gua Gunung Runtuh is believed to have been occupied and used from at least 13,000 years ago until 2,600 years ago as a habitation area, for food preparation, cooking and even tool-making.

The seminal finding of Perak Man by Dr. Zuraina Majid, Malaysia’s first archeologist, and her team at Universiti Sains Malaysia in 1991 catapulted her to national superstardom and put Malaysia on the global map in the fields of archeology and prehistory.

Its significance lies in its attestation that prehistoric people had already colonised our country more than 11,000 years ago. This went a long way in helping debunk the Out-of-Taiwan model of human migration (which states that humans only colonised Malaysia as recently as 4,000 years ago) and supplanted it with the much more plausible Out-of-Sundaland model (which states that humans have been here for at least 74,000 years).

Perak Man was carefully and respectfully buried in the foetal position, accompanied by meat from several types of animals, 10 stone tools and thousands of riverine shells, indicating that he was a shaman (bomoh, in Malay) – a venerated profession in palaeolithic societies.

He was born with a deformity where the growth of his left arm was stunted, probably making him incapable of hunting and fending for himself. But that didn’t stop him from living till the ripe old age of around 40 to 45, roughly double the average human lifespan at the time.

This suggests the prehistoric society he lived in cared for and took care of him as he was a highly-regarded and knowledgeable village elder who could provide valuable insights into life at the time.

After taking some Instagram-worthy photos and soaking in the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the momentous location, we descended and headed to a few other captivating caves in the area and then subsequently to the Lenggong Valley Archaeological Gallery.

The compartment in which Perak Man is placed in the Lenggong Valley Archaeological Gallery.

Its main attraction is, of course, Perak Man himself, whose skeletal remains were extracted from Gua Gunung Runtuh and encased here in a climate-controlled glass compartment that is suspended from the ceiling. It very aptly overlooks a floor-painted map of the prehistoric landmass of Sundaland which he inhabited.

The walls around him are adorned with large photos and illustrations, accompanied by detailed descriptions and explanations of his lifestyle, burial ritual, cause of death, physical characteristics and the artefacts found with him.

I loved how detailed and descriptive the exhibits are, painting a clear picture of him and the prehistoric world he called home. It is heartening to see the museum authorities give the prehistoric treasure its due importance.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the discovery of Perak Man. His incredible antiquity means we in present day Malaysia are closer in time to the 4,500-year-old, near-mythical, pyramid-building Egyptians than even they were to the 11,000-year-old Perak Man.

This discovery clued us in to a crucial part of global prehistory and made us that much wiser about our highly consequential but hazy past.

It is undoubtedly one of Malaysia’s greatest scientific gifts to the world. Unfortunately, it’s a gift that does not garner the interest and adulation it so richly deserves from fellow Malaysians.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.