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Centre for Earth and Environmental Science Research

Geomorphology of the Great Cave of Niah, Sarawak (part of the Niah Caves Project)

Executive Summary
ResearchersProf G.Barker (Principal Investigator, Niah Cave Project): Cambridge University, previously School of Archaeology and Ancient History, Leicester University
Prof D. Gilbertson (Co-investigator, Niah Cave Project): Plymouth University, previously School of Conservation Sciences, Bournemouth University
Dr C. O. Hunt (Co-investigator, Niah Cave Project): Queens University Belfast, previously Geographical Sciences, Huddersfield University
Dr A. P. Dykes (Co-investigator, mudflow sub-project): CEESR, previously Huddersfield University
Funding Body/SourceAHRB
DurationApril 2003-August 2004
Project SummaryThis research was primarily concerned with explaining a 600 cubic metre mudflow deposit inside Niah Great Cave that originated from a very large guano deposit and buried the archaeologically famous 'Deep Skull', but included a preliminary examination of the morphology of the cave.

Two fragments of charcoal obtained from the base of a discrete sediment unit identified as a mudflow deposit were dated to 41,800 +/-620 and 42,610 +/-670 BP. An anatomically modern human skull excavated from below the mudflow deposit in the 1950s was therefore confirmed to be around 40,000 years old (Barker et al., 2007). The mudflow was investigated to establish its most likely cause(s) in order to provide an additional indicator of the likely environmental conditions at the time these early humans were occupying the cave. Results from geotechnical analyses of the fossil guano were compared with Holocene guano (c. 1000-4000 BP) and found to be statistically indistinguishable, allowing the assumption that they probably reflect the guano properties at the time of failure. These results showed that the guano, a metastable deposit similar to loess, must have failed in successive thin surface layers by 'hydrocollapse' due to prodigious quantites of rainwater spray blowing in from outside the cave. This mechanism of water supply was observed during fieldwork, but the required quantities indicate a significantly wetter climate at the time of failure.

Above left: The West Mouth of Niah Great Cave. The 0.2 ha archaeological zone containing the mudflow deposit is inside the cave at the extreme right of the opening. Above right: The guano deposit occupying the first 150 m of the North Passage upslope from the West Mouth archaeological zone (inside the boundary fence), from which the mudflow originated.

In spite of the enormous environmental and archaeological significance of the Niah Caves, no systematic investigation of the karst geomorphology has been undertaken other than the early survey work of the British Geological Survey in Borneo around the early 1960s. The Great Cave shows a succession of forms and depositional features which suggest a long and complex history controlled by the interplay of episodic emergence and continuing erosion. The early part of the history of the cave would repay the attentions of a specialised and well-equipped research team, but geologically more recent development of the system is clearly discernible in the form of a variety of cave processes, including guano accumulation and mass failure, and is continuing in a dynamic fashion.


DYKES, A (2003) 'Investigating the geotechnical properties of guano', in Barker, G (Ed.), 'The Niah Cave Project: The fourth (2003) season of fieldwork'. Sarawak Museum Journal, 58 (n.s.79), 60-62.

Hunt, C and DYKES, A (2003) 'The geomorphology of the Great Cave', in Barker, G (Ed.), 'The Niah Cave Project: The fourth (2003) season of fieldwork'. Sarawak Museum Journal, 58 (n.s.79), 51-53.

Hunt, C, Gilbertson, D, Kurui, E and DYKES, A (2003) 'The palynology of the modern landscape', in Barker, G (Ed.), 'The Niah Cave Project: The fourth (2003) season of fieldwork'. Sarawak Museum Journal, 58 (n.s.79), 92-93.

DYKES, A P (2007) 'Mass movements in cave sediments: investigation of a ~40,000-year old guano mudflow inside the entrance of the Great Cave of Niah, Sarawak, Borneo'. Landslides, 4, 279-290.

Barker, G, Barton, H, Bird, M, Daly, P, Datan, I, DYKES, A, Farr, L, Gilbertson, D, Harrisson, B, Higham, T, Hunt, C, Kealhofer, L, Krigbaum, J, Lewis, H, McLaren, S, Paz, V, Pike, A, Piper, P, Pyatt, B, Rabett, R, Reynolds, T, Rose, J, Rushworth, G, Stephens, M, Stringer, C and Thompson, G (2007) 'The "human revolution" in lowland tropical Southeast Asia: the antiquity and behaviour of anatomically modern humans at Niah Cave (Sarawak, Borneo)'. Journal of Human Evolution, 52, 243-261.

Hunt, C O, DYKES, A P, Gilbertson, D D and Stephens, M (in preparation) 'Morphology and evolution of the Great Cave, Niah, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo'. To be submitted to Cave and Karst Science.

Further information/links

The Niah Cave Project website can be found at:

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