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Part 1 - Early History

Sarawak's History

Early History

In 1958, the discovery of a 40,000 year old human skull in Sarawak's Niah Caves caught the attention of archaeologists the world over, and provided evidence for the existence of modern man in Borneo at that time. The skull predated the earliest relics found on Peninsula Malaysia by 30,000 years. Fragments of Palaeolithic and Neolithic pottery, tools and jewels were also discovered, along with prehistoric cave paintings (4).

In Sarawak's Niah Caves, these approximately
2000 year old paintings were found. They
depict boats and people. There are also
ancient boats and stoneware in the foreground.

For thousands of years, lives of the people living in what would become Sarawak changed little. Because most of the soil did not support intensive agriculture, the population size remained constant, and nomadic and/or slash and burn lifestyles remained dominant. Many communities were living "Stone Age" lifestyles well into the 20th century.

One major detectible change in pre-modern times was the integration of the economy into regional and world-wide economic systems. Due to its location along the ancient trade routes of the China Sea, Sarawak became a center for trade for merchants from China, India and Arabia (5). Chinese coins and Han pottery found at the mouth of the Sarawak River show that Chinese traders had been on Sarawak from as early as the 7th century. In the first millennium A.D., agricultural digs show that the Niah Caves were home to a bustling community which traded birds' nests, hornbill ivory, bezoar stones, rhinoceros horns, sandalwood and other jungle produce in exchange for the porcelain and beads the Chinese brought. Some of the tribes in Sarawak today are thought to be descendants of these cave people (6). Besides trade, immigrants came to Sarawak to take advantage of its abundant natural resources, which included gold, antimony, timber, and the famous Sarawak black and white pepper.

Sarawak later fell under the control of Sumatra's powerful Srivijayan Empire, which reached its height in the 11th and 12th centuries. Many Sumatran Malays settled in Borneo during this time. About a century later, Srivijaya crumbled under the attacks of the Hindu-Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, and it is this period that left a considerable number of Indian remains in Sarawak. The Majapahit empire fell in the early 15th century, just as Islam, which was introduced by Muslim traders, was gaining a foothold in the coastal areas of Borneo. Sarawak then came under the control of the Malay Sultanate of Brunei (7). However, the control of Srivijaya and Brunei in actual fact meant only the control of the coastal towns vital for trade. Vast interior areas remained terra incognita for outsiders.

Continue to Part 2- The Brooke Era

4. Eliot, Joshua; Bickersteth, Jane and Hinton, Amanda. Malaysia and Singapore Handbook. Bristol: Footprint Handbooks Limited, 1996, p. 304.
5. Wilson, R.A.M. A Cargo of Spice Or Exploring Borneo. London and New York: The Radcliffe Press, 1994, p. 15.
6. Eliot, p.304.
7. Sarawak Annual Report.