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6 archaeological sites in Sabah that you need to know

Sabah is not only blessed with amazing nature and high biodiversity, it also has colourful archaeological past.

Here are at least 6 archaeological sites for visitors to explore at the Land Below the Wind:
1.Pulau Balambangan

Pulau (island) Balambangan is an island located off the northern tip of Borneo. Situated at west of Banggi island, Balambangan is now part of Tun Mustapha Marine Park.

Although the park is widely known as Malaysia’s biggest marine park, many are not informed of its archaeological significance.

At the southern part of the island, there is a group of caves called Batu Sireh (sometimes also known as Batu Kapur).

During the late Miocene (about 10 million years ago), these caves were part of a shallow marine environment.

Over the million years, the coral reefs were slowly deposited. With the help of some rain and seawater, voila! What used to be the coral reef is now the limestone caves of Batu Sireh.

2. Timbang Dayang, Pulau Banggi

Moving on to 3km away from Pulau Balambangan at Pulau Banggi, a discovery was made about 25 years ago at Bukit (hill) Timbang Dayang of the island.

In 1994, a group of locals stumbled upon a bronze drum accidentally in a cave on a hill. The entrance was so narrow only one person could enter it at a time. They turned it over to the Sabah Museum and an excavation team was quickly deployed.

The drum was the first ever bronze drum ever found in Sabah. According to researchers from Universiti Malaysia Sabah, the finding had a significant impact on Dongson Age studies in Malaysia.

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Before this discovery, bronze drums had been found in Peninsular Malaysia such as in Sungai Lang (Selangor), Batu Burok (Terengganu), Tembeling (Pahang) and Kuala Klang (Selangor).

Meanwhile in Borneo, another two bronze drums were found in Sambas, West Kalimantan.

3. Kinabatangan Valley

What makes Agop Batu Tulug an interesting archaeological site is that approximately 500 to 900 years ago, it used to be a burial site.

The site is a group of several caves located at Kinabatangan district. Inside, at least 125 carved wooden coffins were found made from belian hardwood.

These coffins were even decorated with carvings of buffalo heads, crocodiles, house lizards and snakes.

Some believed the coffins belonged to Chinese traders who once settled in the area as Chinese artefacts were found among the remains.
Other than Agop Batu Tulug, there were about 68 ancient wooden coffins found in Batu Supu of Kinabatangan.

In the book Wood Coffin Burial of Kinabatangan, Sabah by Stephen Chia, the Batu Supu limestone complex is believed to contain even more sites and coffins.

This is because there are still many parts of the complex still unexplored.

These coffins were dated back to the 10th to 13th century. Apart from the coffins, they also found remains of human skeletons, beads and ceramics near the burial place.

Besides these two locations at Kinabatangan, other wooden coffins in Sabah were found in Serupi (40), Tapadong (20), Miasias and Sipit (10), Sungai Kalisun (8), Danum Valley Research Centre and Segarong (5).

Some of the wooden coffins made from belian wood on display at Sabah State Museum.
4. Tingkayu, Baturong and Madai of Kunak districts
Some of the artifacts found at Kunak district archaeological sites on display at Sabah State Museum.

The Tingkayu area of Kunak district is one of the famous archaeological sites in Malaysia.

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About 28,000 years ago, the area used to be a river until lava flow from the now extinct Mostyn volcano dammed it up, turning it into a lake.

Then somehow 17,000 years ago, the lake was drained. But going even further than that, simple stone tools were found in the area which are believed to have originated from about 31,000 years ago.

Prehistoric humans were believed to live around the shore of Lake Tingkayu. When the lake dried, they moved to limestone area of Baturong. Then they eventually moved to further east to Madai caves.

5. Bukit Tengkorak and Melanta Tutup, Semporna
Some archaelogical samples displayed at Sabah State Museum’s prehistoric section.

Located at Jalan Tampi-tampi which is about 10km south of Semporna town, Bukit Tengkorak’s archaeological site is the largest pottery making factory in Southeast Asia during the Neolithic period.

The site is on a hill about 600 feet above sea level. Researchers found numerous pottery shards with various patterns dating 3,000 BP (or 1050 BC).

About 12km from Bukit Tengkorak lies Melanta Tutup, an archaeological site where traces human settlement could be traced back to Neolithic age.

Here, researchers found burial jars that yielded a date of 3,000 to 1,000 years ago.

6. Mansuli Valley, Lahad Datu

Back in 2012, researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia and Sabah Museum found more than 1,000 stone tools believed to date back 235,000 years at Mansuli Valley.

Located about 30km from Lahad Datu town, there are two archaeological sites at Mansuli Valley namely Mansuli and Samang Buat Cave.

When Tom and Barbara Harrisson did a survey at Samang Buat Cave in 1964, they found four wooden coffins inside the cave. According to their reports, one of the coffins was “distinctly long”.

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Even if you cannot make it to Lahad Datu archaeological sites, you can still catch of glimpse of Sabah prehistoric past at its state musuem.

You can read more about these archaeological sites from Mansuli Valley Lahad Datu, Sabah in the Prehistory of Southeast Asia by Jeffrey Abdullah and Wood Coffin Burial of Kinabatangan, Sabah by Stephen ChiaOr make your way to Sabah State Museum.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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