In October 1954 I joined an expedition to the Great Cave at Niah
in Sarawak to assist Tom Harrisson, then curator of the museum
at Kuching, in an excavation for stone-age remains; we also had
the company of Hugh Gibb. Both Tom and Hugh have since died,
Tom in 1976 and Hugh in 1991. What
follows is an edited and condensed version of my diary from that expedition.
I flew to Kuching from Singapore and was met by Tom
and taken to his house in Pig Lane. He has a number of animals
around, including a half-grown cassowary which stalks about the
garden and periodically puts on a display, racing around,
prancing, posturing and twisting its neck; they become
dangerous when they are adult. On a perch by the door lives a
solemn and perfectly tame rhinoceros hornbill.
Hugh Gibb joined us today and we all had dinner with
the Governor, Sir Anthony Abel.
Off in the Zohara at 0930 when we left the river and got out to sea there were a lot of sea snakes floating at the
surface, all Pelamis piaturus, coloured brown and bright yellow,
the pattern variable. Birds included black-naped terns, brown
boobies and small flocks of phaleropes flying over the sea or
swimming like gulls. Tom says they winter at sea, feeding on
plankton, and are new-comers to this area of sea.
Still at sea. I saw a fairly large butterfly out to starboard, flapping tiredly along, and even as we watched,
it faltered and fell into the sea, floating with wings outspread,
obviously never to rise again.
Soon after mid-day we were met by a smaller boat, the M.V.
Rainbow, which will take us up the Niah River. Fortunately a
calm day enabled us to trans-ship all our luggage without mishap.
The boat touched bottom once crossing the bar, and then we went
on upstream to the pengkalan or landing place where we disembarked
for the caves. There is a Chinese trader here on whose premises
there is a thatched area called a balai in which, with his
permission, we decided to stay the night. Unfortunately it was
also the home of his considerable flock of chickens, which had
to be ejected from the rafters with a broom at nightfall; even
if you have a mosquito net you don't want chickens roosting
Up after an unrestful night due to the aggrieved
clucking and crowing of the poultry, which roosted nearby.
After some coffee we got some porters together to carry our
stuff out to the cave. Tom went first with some of our own men,
and I did two trips, out and back with some locally engaged
porters. It is, I suppose, under two miles, but a trying walk as
most of it is over slippery planks raised to form a causeway
high enough for a fall to be dangerous when the surrounding area is not flooded. (One prowls cautiously along, soon reaching a state of semi-hypnosis, staring at the
board at one's feet. The porters, of course, made nothing of
it despite their heavy loads.
Our cave habitation, constructed and used by the birds' nest
collectors, is most curious: an assemblage of rooms and open
'verandahs', raised on piles because it is constructed under
an extensive rock shelter which gives complete protection against the weather. The nest collecting is seasonal and not at present being pursued. The nests are of course the edible nests relished
by the Chinese, made by the swiftlets from strings of their
sticky saliva; they consist in fact of coagulated mucus.
In the afternoon we went to the big Niah cave which is close
by. It is huge with an enormous entrance and the roof is
populated by swiftlets and several kinds of bats. These animals
play 'Box and Cox', the swiftlets flying out in the morning when
the bats come home to roost, and the same in reverse in the
The arrangements for collecting the nests are quite alarming
to contemplate. 'Ropes' of long, joined pieces of wood hang from the
ceiling, between 100 and 200 feet up. In the ceiling are holes
and tunnels into which the collectors crawl, having climbed up
the 'ropes' using just hands and feet. There are subsidiary
structures of wood stuck here and there about the ceiling on
which they scramble about to gain access to the nests in
otherwise inaccessible cavities. The climbers are exceedingly
strong athletic men, and tbey are exposed to risks rather like
those faced by sailors 'going aloft' in an old-time sailing
ship. The sailors had better hand and foot-holds,
the nest collectors hove nothing to fear from the weather.
Up after a long and quiet night's sleep. Our water
supply comes from two holes, one above the other in the same line
of flow. The upper one supplies pure perfectly safe drinking
beside water and we wash on a platform beside the lower one at the bead
of an outflow ditch. There is no visible flow, but the wells
fill rapidly, the mass of limestone overhead acting as a reservoir
Before we could start excavation we had to sponsor a ceremony to propitiate the spirits of the cave, based on that performed before each nest-collecting season. A small wooden structure
was made consisting of a pair of upright sticks each having a
container at the top with an egg in it, one boiled, one raw.
On a cross-bar are some leaves, pinched and folded to resemble
swiftlet nests and filled with boiled rice. Two elderly men,
functioning as priests, attended and intoned and gesticulated,
pausing twice to collect ten-dollar notes from Tom.
After this we started digging at a site marked by a wide
mound-like shape, just under the cave overhang, which we
interpreted (rightly as it ensued) as a habitation midden. We
soon encountered shells, both mangrove and fresh-water species,
evidently brought to the cave for food. A few potsherds but no
Hugh and I went on a tour of the caves with the K'tua
Kampong (head man) of Niah. The floor is everywhere deeply
covered with guano, bat and swiftlet, and largely composed of
the indigestible remains of insects, with innumerable wing-cases
of beetles, so that the surface glitters like sequins. This
guano is a more important product of the caves than the birds' nests. Great quantities
of it are loaded into sacks and carried along the wooden causeway
to the river, where the Chinese trader buys and re-sells the
guano, which is a very effective fertilizer. He also buys the
birds' nests and sells them to merchants from Singapore and Hong Kong.
An alarm in the evening: Ahmat, a plant collector
whom we have with us has not returned to camp and must be lost.
Ahmat still missing after a wet night. The neighbourhood
has been roused and a fifty-dollar reward offered for news of him, but he turned up half way through the morning very wet and hungry. He had been cut off and confused by floods. A
quarter of a wild pig brought in today and we have fed well on it.
In the afternoon we set off for a local long-house
to which we have been invited to a party and to spend the night.
Although we have been perfectly dry and comfortable the
surrounding country has been flooded by heavy rain and we went
to the long-house partly by boat and partly by wading. A longhouse
is really a village under one roof consisting of
a string of cubicles opening onto a wide verandah, the whole
structure being built of timber, bamboo and palm-leaf thatch,
the raised floor six or eight feet above the ground.
The whole thing may be 100 to 200 yards long with the verandah
forming a continuous covered 'street'.
We entered and sat down in our wet clothes and were plied
with tuak (rice wine) and had supper of rice with pig and
mouse-deer. There was rather half-hearted percussion music ard
dancing and Hugh scrambled about taking flash photos and once
fell off a ladder providing some light relief. We set up our
beds on the verandah with mosquito nets (a lot of the community
are suffering from malaria) and turned in about midnight.
I suppose I must have had some sleep, but was well
awake by 0500, roused by a fearful shindy of pigs, dogs and
crowing cocks. The pigs live on the ground under the house, the
dogs anywhere up and down the verandah, and both start their day
a bit before sunrise, squealing, barking and fighting. The
cocks are a peculiar phenomenon. They are not just denizens of
the hen-run (which does exist outside somewhere and contributes
a few decibels of its own), but are cherished fighting cocks,
each one spending the night tethered by one leg outside its owner's cubicle. I had one only a few feet away. The cacophony rises at sunrise about 0600, to a pitch which
precludes thought, to say nothing of sleep.
We arose and dressed about 0630 before an attentive audience
of fifty or more, children in front arm's length or less from
the bed, men standing behind them and women at the back. I
managed to get my more intimate dressing done under the mosquito
net and was glad of its shelter. This experience reinforced my
opinion that to be a successful social anthropologist you must be,
just a little bit eccentric. We left about 0800 and our cave
seemed to me quite luxuriously appointed when we got back. But
in the evening a fine dinner of pig presented by the long-house
community - good luck to them. The next week was occupied with
excavation; I will summarise the archaeology later.
Occupied in the move down to Niah village where we
shall spend the night. Hugh and I got away about 0930 and
walked slowly to the pengkalan (where we spent the night on the
way in) and waited for the porters with our luggage to catch up
with us. We then transferred it to a boat and came down to
Niah village. Tom arrived in a later boat after doing a series
of visits and arranging for our journey along the coast tomorrow.
We are invited to have dinner tonight with the local 'Capitan
China', a friend of Tom's and chief of the local Chinese traders.
Dinner with the Capitan China was quite a party with
no stint of beer. In the morning we left Niah by boat, went
down to the river mouth and turned west crossing the mouth of
the river Sibuti. Tom had somehow managed for three bicycles
to be available, our plan being to cycle along the shore to the
town of Miri, the location of Sarawak's earliest oil field.
We allowed two days for this.
The first day's cycling was a wonderful experience. Imagine
a shelving shore of pure white sand with the sea at about 80
degrees F. (27 C.). Landward a fringe of casuarina trees and an
open strip 50 yards wide with scattered bushes. Behind this
uninterrupted swamp forestl the whole scene utterly uninhabited
and deserted, mile after mile. At intervals we stopped, threw
off all our clothes and rushed into the sea. It was so hot that
we dried and dressed almost immediately on coming out. Was the
Garden of Eden something like this?
Towards evening we arrived at a place called Bungai where
there was a hut, put up by Shell Petroleum and fortunately not
occupied, and the man in charge allowed us to sleep there.
Sardines and eggs were produced from somewhere and we had supper
and went to bed. Sandflies very bad here; they easily penetrate
a mosquito net.
A steep headland at Bungai prevented us from taking the
bicycles any further and they were left behind. I suppose their
owners were informed later of their whereabouts. We climbed the
cliff, up and down the other side, and were on foot from there
on. However, some distance short of Miri a young Chinese driving
a truck along the shore picked us up. We paid off the porters
and gladly climbed aboard. We soon left the shore and a bumpy
road and hot following wind made the drive quite uncomfortable.
We got to Miri about mid-day and fortunately there were vacant rooms
in the Rest House. We dug out of our luggage some very creased
white coats and trousers and hastily got them ironed in response
to an invitation to dinner at the Residency with the Resident
Mr Buck and his wife and daughter.
We made our way to Kuching by stages, first in a
little plane called a Rapide, coming down at Seria in Brunei and then at Labuan. There we changed to a Dakota which took us to Kuching. I returned to Singapore the next day.
A note on the Swiftlets.
These birds are similar to swifts but
very much smaller. All swifts use their saliva to glue their
nesting material together, and some of the swiftlets (genus
Collocalia) build their nests solely of matted sticky threads
of mucus which hardens quickly. These are, of course, the
valuable edible birds' nests. The whole thing softens in hot
water and furnishes the celebrated soup. I have had it once or twice; its taste and texture are very much what one would expect having regards to its origin.
There are several species. The very small white-bellied
swiftlet makes a nest of moss stuck together with saliva, which
is of no value. The latin name Collocalia esculenta was given
to this species in error before much was known the birds. The
nest is made in daylight situations and two eggs are laid.
Iow's swiftlet (C. maxima) lays and incubates one egg and the
brown-rumped swiftlet (C. vestita) lays two. Both stick their
nests to the cave walls well inside and often in total
darkness. It is these two that produce the edible nests,
which are made sntirely of saliva.
In 1954 Tom and I noticed that the swiftlets flying in the
dark continually made a staccato clicking noise. We speculated
whether this might be a form of 'sonar' comparable with that of
bats and used for echo-location in the dark. On a subsequent
visit in 1957 Lord Medway (now the Earl of Cranbrook)
Remonstrated without any doubt that this is so.
A note on the archaeology.
At shallow depth, both on the
excavated midden and elsewhere in the cave, we found a lot of
shell remains (molluscs used for food) and some human burials.
These were probably neolithic (recent stone age) but did not
match the Malayan Neolithic, with which I am familiar. The
affinity of this culture has not been established, so far as
On the midden we soon came to a continuous stratum, over one
metre thick, containing much ash and charcoal and small
artificial flakes of brown quartzite. The hill in which the
cave lies is limestone and we could find no naturally occurring
quartzite in the vicinity. On my second visit in 1957 I took
samples of charcoal from near the top and base of the habitation
and carbon-14 analysis gave 19,600 years before present for the
higher sample and 32,700 for the lower. Three years later Tom
found a human skull associated with charcoal giving a date of
nearly 40,000 years before present. Examination of the skull
suggested some affinity with the extinct Tasmanian aborigines,
and it is among the earliest known remains of Homo sapiens.