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Niah National Park, Where the Caves Continue to Give 40 Thousand Years On

Niah National Park, Where the Caves Continue to Give 40 Thousand Years On

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Because Malaysia has an amazing climate and incredible natural scenery, the country is popular with international visitors. It also has many remarkable national parks, such as Niah National Park. The cave system in this park has yielded many archaeological finds related to the history of early humans and the Malaysian authorities have applied to UNESCO to have it listed as a World Heritage Site.

The Remarkable History of Niah National Park

The caves, a significant feature of the park, have been used by some of the earliest people in South-East Asia and are still used by the local people. In the 19 th century, the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace explored the caves and found evidence of early human remains. It was not until the 1950s that they were thoroughly investigated. These, and later studies, found that the caves were used by humans 40,000 years ago. 

The remnants of a skull and other bones have been found and have been identified as belonging to individuals who are similar to modern-day Aboriginals. In total some 122 human remains have been found and they have been studied in America. These have provided many insights into the early history of humans and they have supported the theory that south-east Asia was populated by two distinct groups, one being Australoid, and the other from mainland Asia.

Archaeologists have found Pleistocene and Neolithic axes, adzes, pottery, shell jewelry, boats, and mats. A few iron tools, ceramics, and glass beads have been dated to the Iron Age. Prehistoric people were attracted to the cave because of the cool environment and the plentiful supply of birds and bats.

There is evidence that ethnic groups in Sarawak used the cave for ritual and ceremonial purposes as the rock art found in the Painted Cave depicts souls continuing to the afterlife. The cave was a burial site for many years and burial canoes or death ships have also been found.

Harvested swiftlet nests (arfa-adam/Adobe Sock)

Harvested swiftlet nests (arfa-adam/Adobe Sock)

The Niah Great Cave was visited by Chinese traders from at least the Sung Dynasty since it is the home of swiflets whose nests are the chief ingredient in the Chinese delicacy ‘bird’s nest soup’. The cave was visited by merchants who came from far and wide to buy the nests and trade with others. Today the swiftlets nests are still harvested by men who climb great heights and it is dangerous work.

The Caves at Niah National Park

The caves are located at the north of Mount Subis, in the in the forests of Miri, which is 3,000 acres of swamp and pristine jungle. They are part of a much larger limestone escarpment that was formed millions of years ago when this area was under the sea.

Location of Niah National Park, Malaysia (Google Maps)

Location of Niah National Park, Malaysia (Google Maps)

The entrance to the cave is some 10 miles (15 km) from the South China Sea, west of the system. The west mouth, as it is known, is 450 feet (150m) high and 215 feet (75 m) wide.

Within the system there are two sections with one known as the Great Cave, thought to be one of the largest caverns in the world, and a maze of interconnected smaller caves. One of the best-known features of the cave system is the trench known as ‘hell trench’ because of its high temperature. There are also a number of unusually shaped stalagmites.

The unique environment of the cave system means that there are many interesting animals, colorful birds, bats, and insects in the caverns and photographers are spoilt for choice.

Visiting Niah National Park

The park is on the island of Sarawak and not far from Malaysia’s border with Brunei. A ticket can be purchased which allows visitors unlimited access to the cave for the day.

Inside Niah Painted Cave, Niah National Park, Malaysia (Lillian / Adobe Stock)

Inside Niah Painted Cave, Niah National Park, Malaysia (Lillian / Adobe Stock)

Upon entering, visitors are guided into the Great Cave through to the Painted Cave and on to some of the smaller caves.

It is possible to stay overnight in the Niah National Park and explore the nature trails near the caves. The museum in the park contains a replica of the skull of an early human, the famous ‘Deep Skull’, swiftlets nests, and a burial canoe. 

Top image: Niah National Park, Niah Cave in Sarawak Malaysia Source: (Lillian / Adobe Stock)

By Ed Whelan


Dodge-Wan, D., & Deng, A. H. M. (2013). Biologically influenced stalagmites in Niah and Mulu caves (Sarawak, Malaysia). Acta carsologica, 42(1), 155-163.

Available at:

Hobbs, J. J. (2004). Problems in the harvest of edible birds' nests in Sarawak and Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Biodiversity & Conservation, 13(12), 2209-2226

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My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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