Sabah was inhabited 10,000-30,000 years ago
Published on: Saturday, October 17, 2020
By: Dailly Express
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The Goamantong caves.
Daily Express (4th March, 2001)

Based on archaeological findings, Sabah was inhabited by mankind as early between 10,000 to 30,000 years ago, on the East Coast of Sabah. It has been deducted that more than 20,000 years ago, a lava flow from the now extinct Mostyn Volcano dammed a section of the Tingkayu River causing a huge lake to form. As the lake drained away, caves in the limestone massifs and hills were uncovered and people moved in to live there periodically for about 5,000 years. 

However, these massive cliffs and limestone caves were later abandoned and were left devoid of human life until much later when these cliff shelters and caves were used for burials. Whether the present population in the area surrounding the former Tingkayu lake were the descendants of the original lakeside dwellers is yet to be established. This is due to the lack of written record pertaining to the early settlers. 

As to the old coffins found in limestone caves in the East Coast which attracted many researchers from overseas, several theories were suggested. And the Sabah Museum is compiling datas in the hope to establish facts nearer the truth. 

One of the earliest accounts of the old coffins in several caves in the East Coast was by Pastor Orolfo, Senior Forest Ranger, Forest Department of the then British North Borneo. The article was published in 1933, and some of his interesting observation and findings are as follows. 

“The Idahan, natives of Lahad Datu, who are said to be the descendants of Gomorid Kimau, the reputed discoverer of most of the caves in Madai, Baturong and Tapadong Hills, are a people whose ancestors were once the Dusuns of the place...Legend says that before the natives accepted Islam, they placed their dead in coffins and kept them in caves where the coffins would with-stand decay for a long time.” 

Whether the term “Dusuns” as referred by Pastor Orolfo, would refer to the Dusuns people of today is not clear. But what the article clearly shows is that the ancestors of the Idahan people were the pioneers who established the functions and economic system of caves that are found in the east coast. 

The article goes on to say that, four or five centuries ago, now it would be five to six, the Idahan people were “kafir” and he found it interesting “that many of the old men of Lahad Datu can trace their ancestors to six or seven generations back from Abdullah, traditionally the first of their ancestors to be converted to Islam.”

The people of Idahan was said to have embraced Islam as early as in 14th century.

Here, interestingly the new generations of Idahan would trace their origin from their first convert which is naturally symbolising their new identity. However, their legends would trace further back, though the culture and practice in those days were no more app in their new life as a Muslim.

Some of the caves which Pastor Orolfo visited were found to contain burial coffins or were told by the people living the vicinity to contain coffins include the following: 

  • Pusu Samang Alag cave in Madai Hill 
  • Pusu Samang Tas cave in Madai Hill 
  • Kubonatok cave in Madai Hill 
  • Nagob Bilo in Baturong Hill 
  • Pusu Bakas in Baturong Hill 
  • Samang Buat in Tapadong Hill 
  • Samang Itay in Tapadong Hill 
  • Mandang Awan in Tapadong Hill 
  • Batu Bias in Tambirogo Hill 

There was no mention of Agop Batu Tulug in Batu Puteh and Agop Miasias in Kinabatangan area which the Sabah Museum found later in 1960s. These caves and several smaller caves scattered along the Kinabatangan River are also containing wooden coffins similar to those mention by Pastor Orolfo. 

“The coffins which I have seen are mostly made of Belian and Merbau, some are made of softwood belonging to the Dipterocarpacea family. 

“The tree was apparently cut into coffin-lengths, split into halves, hollowed out and carved to taste.” Some of the coffins are beautifully carved.  The lids of some are adorned with tembadau heads carved on both ends. The coffin is generally one or two inches thick and when empty can hardly be lifted by five men.” 

These descriptions fit well to those coffins found in the caves of the Batu Puteh in Kinabatangan, about 200 halves coffins. 

These caves, known as Agop by the Orang Sungai who inhabited the area were turn into a museum, the Agop Batu Tulug Museum, officially opened to the public in 1996. 

Another interesting observation by Orolfo was that “some of the coffins are very long, as long, as nine feet. Inside the large coffins small coffins may be found.” 

He suggested that these small coffins may be used to load, and to carry jewellery and other property of the dead and then put into the large coffin together with the corpse.  This assumption was based on his observation when digging the floor of some caves. 

Among the items he found include parangs, spears, knives, broken plates, broken jars, beads and various wooden articles.  It is also interesting to note that the coffins are similar to those ancient coffins found in mainland China, Thailand, Vietnam as well as those in Sulawesi Indonesia. 

This suggests that the ancient inhabitants in these area shared a common cultural link. The truth would remain as archaeological puzzle, at least at the present. 

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