Archaeologist: Possibly more prehistoric skeletons in Guar Kepah

By Opalyn Mok

SEBERANG PERAI, April 24 ― After the discovery of a 5,000-year-old skeleton at Guar Kepah last week, archaeologist Prof Datuk Dr Mokhtar Saidin believes others could exist at an adjoining lot of land.

The Universiti Sains Malaysia's Centre for Global Archaeological Research director said this was because the plot was not previously excavated.

“I have this feeling that there could be more skeletons just next to this site,” he said, gesturing to a nearby site that is currently used as a path into the excavation site.

He said he must discuss with the state government and the Chief Minister Incorporated (CMI) for permission to continue digging at the other site.

Mokhtar said the discovery of the prehistoric skeleton at the site during digging works to build a gallery is very important for the country and the state.

The Neolithic skeleton was buried together with pottery and stone tools and under mounds of shells.

Neolithic skeleton

“It's the first Neolithic full skeleton found since the first excavation conducted by British archaeologists back in 1850s,” he told reporters at the excavation site in Guar Kepah today.

He said the discovery meant they will be able to tell the full story of the marine adaptation of Neolithic people, of the Hoabinh culture, that lived here thousands of years ago.

“These are hunter-gatherers living near to the sea who hunted deers, pigs and also ate turtles, clams, fishes and shellfish,” he said.

The skeleton was found buried with its arms folded and surrounded by pottery, stone tools and several different types of shells.

“With just this discovery, we can tell the burial ceremony they held, the type of tools they used, their diet and how they lived,” Mokhtar said.

Mokhtar and his team of about 10 are slowly uncovering the skeleton before they bring it back to the USM laboratory for further testing.

He said it was almost a complete specimen save for a leg portion that was partially destroyed due to earlier excavation by a backhoe before they halted all works.

“We recovered pieces of the leg from the digging works but luckily we stopped it in time so it did not destroy the upper portion, the ribs, skull and hand,” he said.

He said the skeleton was an adult and based on the size and shape of the jawline, it is believed to be a female but this has to be confirmed with further testing.

Archaeologist Prof Datuk Dr Mokhtar Saidin slowly uncovering the skeleton found at the Guar Kepah site.

Shell middens

The skeleton was discovered underneath one of the shell middens that were identified by earlier archaeologists, the first of whom was George Windsor Earl back in 1851.

Mokhtar said the earlier archaeologists discovered three shell middens at the site that were named, Shell Midden A, Shell Midden B and Shell Midden C.

During archaeological excavation works conducted by British archaeologists between 1851 and 1934, one skeleton was excavated from site A, 31 from site B and nine from site C.

All these findings were taken by the archaeologists for further testing, and are now housed at the National Natuurhistorisch Museum in Leiden, Holland. 

“This skeleton is found in site C so it's the 10th skeleton from this site if we included the earlier skeletons found here,” Mokhtar said.

Site A and site B were already destroyed — one is now under the Jalan Guar Kepah main road while another is underneath a village — when the USM team started excavation works at Guar Kepah back in 2010.

He said the carbon testing conducted on the remaining shell midden at site C done in 2010 have revealed the site to be around 5,000 to 6,000 years old.

Mokhtar said Guar Kepah is the only marine adaptation Neolithic site that was found in Malaysia.

“It is the only proof of prehistoric life in Penang and this site is also the first ever archaeological site by the British in Malaysia in 1851,” he said.

The USM archaeological team excavating the Guar Kepah site.

Guar Kepah Archaeology Gallery

The USM archaeology team had proposed the formation of a gallery back in 2010 to preserve the pre-historic findings at the site.

The state government allocated RM800,000 to build the gallery and construction works started recently until they found the skeleton.

All construction works have since been halted for Mokhtar and his team to excavate the skeleton.

“Due to this discovery, possibly the construction of the gallery will be delayed and the gallery may only be completed in October,” he said.

Due to the addition of a skeleton to the gallery, Mokhtar said the design for the gallery has to be changed to make it air-conditioned so that it could preserve the condition of the skeleton.

Public Works Department North Seberang Perai District engineer Shahfizan Md Nor said they will have to re-design the gallery in accordance to recommendations by Mokhtar.

“Previously, the design was open-air but now that it has to be air-conditioned to preserve the skeleton, we have to change the design,” he said.

When contacted, state executive councillor in charge of the project, Dr P. Ramasamy, said the state government will consider all recommendations made by Mokhtar.

“If he needs more time to dig for more skeletons, he can approach us and we will allow it because this is an important discovery,” he said.

He said the gallery can be postponed to allow for more excavation to be conducted if the archaeologists felt that they might discover more skeletons there.

“Our initial completion date was September but now, we will give the archaeologists as much time as they need for the excavation works because it is important to preserve the skeleton and other findings at the site,” he said.

Mokhtar said it will take him about another week to fully excavate the skeleton and items around the skeleton from the ground.