The presence of a substance used in ancient face powder led researchers to discover the gender of the Nenggiri prehistoric man unearthed in Kelantan | Malay Mail

GUA MUSANG, July 24 — The 14,000-year-old human skeleton discovered by archaeologists seven months ago at Gua Keledung Kecil in Nenggiri Valley here is likely to be that of a woman based on the discovery of hematite in the grave.

The mineral has a reddish powder that researchers believe was used as a face powder in pre-Neolithic times.

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Ancient cavemen also used hematite as a drawing or writing tool on the walls of their cave dwellings and buried it with the dead.

A team of researchers from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) led by Associate Prof Zuliskandar Ramli has been carrying out excavation works in Nenggeri Valley since September last year.

The excavation, an initiative of Tenaga Nasional Bhd, covers part of the site for the upcoming RM5 billion Nenggiri hydroelectric dam project and was undertaken to save some ancient caves in the Nenggiri Valley rich in archaeological treasures before they are completely submerged when the Nenggiri hydroelectric power station is brought on stream in mid-2027.

A total of 14 caves were involved in the excavation and include Cha Cave, Chawan Cave, Small Cave (Batu Add), Lubang Kelawar Cave (Batu Add), Keledung Cave, Rahmat Cave, Gemalah Cave and Kelew Cave.

Summarizing his team’s discovery of the skeletal remains at the site, Zuliskandar told Bernama: “We, in fact, found many pieces of hematite with the (14,000-year-old) skeleton. There was a piece of hematite on the left hand and it showed that the deceased, while still alive, had expertise in using sand ritually or as a make-up of hematite.

He said the excavation team also found two pieces of clear crystal in the eye parts, adding that precious minerals were placed in the eyes of the deceased possibly as part of ancient burial rituals.

“The Orang Asli also practice a similar tradition… they put stones in the eyes of the deceased and in terms of their philosophy, the eyes of the deceased will become stones in the grave. Crystal is also a type of stone, so it can also be placed in the eye area,” said Zuliskandar, who is a senior fellow at the Institute of Malay World and Civilization, UKM.

For the record, Bernama was at the excavation site in Gua Keledung Kecil, Nenggiri Valley, recently for an exclusive coverage of the UKM team’s findings.

It is not easy to remove the framework

Zuliskandar added that the UKM excavation team — assisted by Khairil Amri Abdul Ghani, a senior museum assistant in the Archeology Division of the National Heritage Department (JWN) and Abdul Ghafar Abdul Ghani, a conservation operations assistant at the JWN — had to be very careful while removing the human skeleton from the burial inside a cave.

Nenggiri prehistoric man is believed to be older than Perak Man, the moniker given to the skeletal remains of a man believed to have existed 10,000 to 11,000 years ago and discovered in the Lenggong Valley district of Hulu Perak in 1991.

Zuliskandar said the extrication process took about two days as the skeleton had been exposed to air for seven months. In addition to that, the ground was moist and the internal parts of the skeleton were covered with layers of soil which made it difficult to remove the remains.

Cloudy skies and wet weather made things worse for the team as the cave became darker, thus limiting their visibility.

“Due to the fact that this skeleton is the skeleton of a prehistoric man, we have to carry out our conservation work carefully with the help of experts from the National Heritage Department.

“To avoid any damage, this (conservation work) cannot be done quickly… we don’t want to crack or break the bones,” he said, adding that in the first part of the conservation process, the UKM and JWN team succeeded in separating the upper and lower limb bones from the torso, one by one.

Interestingly, the team managed to keep the upper part of the skeleton intact – pelvis, ribs and skull – instead of separating the parts.

At the excavation site, the skeletal remains were cleaned using a “dry cleaning” method in which a bamboo skewer and small brush were used to remove dirt and other particles. This process needs to be done with utmost care especially when handling the very fragile parts of the seeds.

Khairil Amri, who has been working in the archaeological field since 1999, said that the dry cleaning technique is used to remove the soil attached to the bones which are considered very fragile. Different methods are also used in the conservation process.

Specialist in UKM

On July 13, the Nenggiri Valley prehistoric human remains were brought to UKM’s Medical Faculty, 300 kilometers away from Kuala Lumpur, for further study.

To ensure that it does not break down on its way to the capital city, the vehicle carrying the skeleton is driven by Khairil Amri himself who drives at a slow and steady speed of 60 kilometers per hour.

Arriving at UKM some seven hours later, the skeleton was taken to the Department of Anatomy to examine its level of health and bone density.

The skeleton is being studied under the ‘Bone Quality of Prehistoric Humans in the Malay Peninsula’ project by a team of researchers from UKM’s Anatomy Department and Pharmacology Department led by Prof Ima Nirwana Soelaiman.

“Almost from what we have seen, this human skeleton has a relatively large femur (thigh) bone and looks robust… we can assume that the person was healthy when alive,” said Ima Nirwana.

“However, a more detailed analysis needs to be done to confirm our assumption.”

The first task of the research team was to thoroughly clean the plot. For this, the distilled water immersion method is applied to soften any hardened soil that sticks to the seeds that cannot be removed earlier with a skewer and small brush. After that, the seeds are left to dry completely at a room temperature of between 18 and 22 degrees Celsius, a process that takes one to two months to complete.

The drying process needs to take place in a room without light and moisture to prevent the growth of microorganisms such as fungi that will cause the bones to rot quickly, according to UKM Anatomy Department lecturer Associate Prof Elvy Suhana Mohd Ramli.

He says the seeds can last a long time if cared for properly.

“The seeds need to be cleaned of all dust so they don’t break or become brittle. This way, the seeds can last for decades or forever,” she added.

Once the bones of the Nenggiri prehistoric man were thoroughly cleaned and dried, the researchers began the next process, examining the internal structure of the bones using micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) to determine their internal shape and density. This will take approximately two weeks to complete.

The two-dimensional (2D) images obtained from micro-CT scanning will be converted into 3D images using special computer software. This software will also provide quantitative measurements pertaining to the internal thickness and trabeculae of the bones. This process, however, is complex and is expected to take two to three months.

“The findings from the scans will give us an idea of ​​the health of the bones and the density of the internal structure as well as compare prehistoric human biological characteristics with modern humans. We expect these (prehistoric) bones to be stronger than modern humans because humans were more physically active because they had to hunt animals,” explained Ima Nirwana.

The findings of their studies will be used to build a special database on the biological properties of prehistoric human bones. The database will also provide detailed information on human life during the pre-Neolithic period and will serve as a reference source for researchers around the world.

Elvy Suhana added that once their research is completed, the Nenggiri prehistoric human skeleton will be handed over to JWN for conservation purposes. — Bernama

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