While 40,000-year-old human remains and rock art might be the highlights of Niah’s archaeological site, many tend to overlook the cave’s prehistoric fauna.
When archaeologists dug up the site, they found more than just pottery. They also found bones attributed to remains of food as well as charcoal from the fires they used to prepare the food.
Based on findings by Tom Harrisson, Dirk Albert Hooijer, Lord Medway (now the 5th Earl of Cranbrook) and Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koeningswald, they found bones of animals that no longer exist.
Here the animals that have gone extinct from Niah Cave:
1.Tapir (Tapirus indicus)
The tapir has not only gone extinct in Niah Cave but from the whole of Borneo island.
A compilation of specimens from cave excavations in both Sabah and Sarawak reported that Malay tapirs once occurred in northern Borneo. They were roaming around this part of the island from the late Upper Pleistocene, ca. 45,000 years ago through Holocene to near recent dates.
The reasons that they are no longer found here are due to climate change during the post-Pleistocene era, together with restoration of the humid tropical rainforest environment which would have reduced the extent of available habitat favourable to the species.
According to research, it is possible that the final disappearance of the tapir from the island was a recent phenomenon, perhaps occurring over the last 500 years.
Now, they are found mostly throughout the tropical lowland rainforest of Southeast Asia, including Peninsular Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.
2. Asian giant pangolin (Manis paleojavanica)
Recently, pangolins have made headlines for being the most trafficked mammal. Sadly, their ancestor species were most probably extinct due to humans too. The giant pangolin was 2.5 times the size of the Sunda pangolin.
Lord Medway excavated bones of the Asian giant pangolin at the Niah Cave and then Hooijer identified it in 1960.
They found that it was similar to the extinct giant pangolin in Java island.
Furthermore, carbon dating suggests that the Niah bones are about 42,000 -47,000 years old. This coincides with the presence of humans in Borneo.
Researchers believed this was the first Borneo mammal to become extinct after the arrival of humans.
Species that are extinct from Niah Cave, but not from Borneo
Apart from these, archaeologists have also found bones of other animals which no longer can be found in Niah Cave. But they can still be found in other parts of Borneo.
These include the bearded pig (Sus sp.), orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), banteng (Bos Javanicus) and clouded leopard (Felis nebulosa).
The oldest orangutan teeth found in Niah Cave are larger than those of the biggest animals living today. These animals were possibly larger…but it is possible that maybe it was only their teeth that were larger.
Meanwhile, it is undetermined if the bearded pig we have today is the same species as its ancestors.
Just like the orangutan, the bones and teeth of the prehistoric pig are very much larger than the present-day Borneo bearded pigs.
In National Parks of Sarawak, Hans P. Hazebroek and Abang Kashim Abang Morshidi suggested the smaller body size of the animals is a trend during the latest stage of evolution of the Bornean fauna.
“This trend is possibly related to changes in the environment, from the more seasonal forests of the Pleistocene to today’s rainforests.”
However looking at the extinction of the tapir in Borneo and its presence in other regions, as well as the complete extinction of Asian giant pangolin, there might be unknown factors also influencing this stage of evolution.