Volume 58 1949 > Volume 58, No. 1 > The Malayan Neolithic, by M. W. F. Tweedie, p 19-35
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Paper read before the Seventh Pacific Science Congress, New Zealand, February, 1949.

THERE are to be found in the Malay Peninsula two main recent (i.e., definitely post-pleistocene) stone cultures. 1 Their equivalents in Indo-China were formerly designated Néolithique Inférieur and Supérieur, the earlier being also called the Hoabinhian. The latter term has been extended to refer to analogous cultures in adjoining territories. In a paper on “Malayan Prehistory” (Tweedie, 1942) I used the descriptive term “Cave Cultures” for the Malayan equivalent of the Hoabinhian and emphasised the contrast between it and the true Neolithic. More recently Heine Geldern (1945, p. 130) has applied the term Mesolithic to the Hoabinhian and its equivalents, describing the people of this culture as hunters and food gatherers living mainly in caves, while the people of the “full Neolithic” were agriculturists and lived in villages (op. cit. p. 134). The application of distinct generic terms to these very different cultures by such an authority as Dr. Heine Geldern is to be welcomed; its expediency far outweighs the academic objection that the terms are not used in precisely the sense in which they were first applied in Europe.

It is with the development of this “full Neolithic,” the culture of the quadrangular adze, of the Austronesian peoples who migrated through the Malay Peninsula into Indonesia, that this paper is concerned.

As already implied, the quadrangular adze is the hallmark of this culture, the well known tool with a rectangular cross-section and unilaterally bevelled edge. A few examples are illustrated in Figs. 1 and 2 and a fairly complete picture of their typology is afforded by the following references:

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Fig. 1.—Stone implements: a, from Gua Madu, Kelantan, 1939 (Raffles Museum No. 39.9); b, from River Tembeling, Pahang (R.M. No. 36.569A); c, from Baling, Kedah, 1935 (R.M. No. 35.62).
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Fig. 1 (Continued)—d, from Pahang, 1907 (R.M. No. Z.525); e, from Baling, Kedah, 1935 (R.M. No. 35.20); f, from Gua Madu, Kelantan, 1939 (R.M. No. 39.12); g, from Gua Musang, Kelantan, 1939 (R.M. No. 39.5a); h, from Gua Madu, Kelantan, 1939 (R.M. No. 39.3a).
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Fig. 2.—Stone implements: a, Beaked adze from Negri Sembilan, 1908 (Raffles Museum No. Z.523); b, Tembeling knife from Kuala Tahan, River Tembeling, Pahang 1940 (R.M. No. 40.25).
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Fig. 2 (Continued)—c, Blade-like implement from River Tembeling, Pahang, 1940 (R.M. No. 40.28); d, Holed implement from River Tembeling, 1940 (R.M. No. 40.26).
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Fig. 2 (Continued)—e, f, the two sides of an unfinished stone ring from Tui Gold Mine, Padang Tengku, Pahang, 1941.
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Fig. 3.—Reconstructions of neolithic vessels: a, from Gua Musang, Kelantan, 1939 (diameter 365 mm.); b, from Gua Musang, 1939 (diameter 170 mm.).
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Fig. 3 (Continued)—c, from Gua Bama, Pahang, 1941 (greatest diameter 280 mm.); d, from Gua Bama, 1941 (diameter 330 mm.).
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Fig. 3 (Continued)—reconstructed elevation and section of potter's turn-table from Gua Musang, 1939.
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Journ. Fed. Malay States Mus., IX, pl. xxiv; XII, pl. xii, lii; XV, pl. i, ii, iv, xiii, xiv, xx, p. 67 (Evans); Evans, 1927, pl. xxxiv-xxxvii; Collings, 1936, pl. xvi-xix; Linehan, 1928, pl. xxxviii; Tweedie, 1940, pl. vi, vii; 1942, pl. iii.

The ordinary straight- or curved-edged adze is represented by a great variety of types ranging from over 400mm. in length to less than 40. Shouldered or tanged adzes, typical of China and Indo-China, are rare. Most characteristically Malayan is the beaked adze (Fig. 2a) which in this particular form seems to be confined to the Malay Peninsula, and is regarded by Heine Geldern as a link between a simple type of quadrangular adze with semi-circular edge found in Indo-China, and the highly specialised pick-adzes of western Indonesia in which the central ridge on the back of the tool extends for the whole of its length (1945, p. 140). Two adzes from Kedah are figured by Collings (1936, pl. xvi, 8 and 10) in which the corners are turned outwards. These are possibly a late (metal age) type made in imitation of a bronze celt, the corners simulating the effect produced by hammering out the edge of a metal tool. Axes, having the cutting edge lying in the median plane of the tool, are rare.

The stone usually employed in making the adzes is a blackish, very fine grained rock with no pronounced cleavage, probably a thermally metamorphosed shale. It frequently develops a shallow grey or white patina. Unfinished specimens show that the tools were skilfully shaped by flaking, only a minimum of grinding being needed to bring them to the finished condition. The remains of flake-scars can often be seen on finished implements and the butt is generally not ground, probably because it was concealed by hafting.

Stone knives of the type illustrated in Fig. 2b have been found in the upper waters of the Pahang river, especially along its tributary the Tembeling, a region in which quadrangular adzes are very abundant; they are made of fissile schist and only the edge is ground. Holed stone knives or choppers (Fig. 2d) are also known from this area.

The blade-like implement with a flared edge from Pahang (Fig. 2c) is also made of fissile rock. This type, - 29 of which there is another in the Raffles Museum Collection, has not, I believe, been recorded from Malaya before.

Stone rings or quoits are not uncommon. The remarkable unfinished specimen found by Mr. F. A. Williams at Tui in Pahang (Fig. 2e, f, and Tweedie, 1947, p. 42, pl. xi) shows clearly how they were made. A disc of stone was prepared by flaking and ground flat on one side. It was then probably embedded, flat side up, in a firm matrix and a piece drilled out of the centre with a bamboo bit and sand as an abrasive. In the specimen figured, eccentric positioning of the bit evidently led to its being left unfinished. It was found in an alluvial gold mine, together with quadrangular adzes and stone knives of the “Tembeling” type when an ancient land surface, now covered by fifteen feet of alluvium, was being washed down by the hydraulic mining process. In addition to throwing light on the process of manufacture this specimen also gives evidence of the true association of these objects with the Neolithic, which has been regarded as uncertain (Heine Geldern, 1945, p. 137-8). In Malaya they are generally made of the same black rock which serves for the adzes.

Cross-hatched stone bark-cloth beaters such as are illustrated by Evans (1927, pl. 38), may be referable to the Neolithic though they have been found in anomalous situations, including an “iron-age” granite cist (Evans, 1928 a) and at a considerable depth in mesolithic cave deposit (Tweedie, 1940). Wholly similar beaters of wood are used by the existing aboriginals, who recognise the stone prototypes for what they are, though the adzes are regarded by them as well as by the Malay peasant as “thunder-bolts.”

This belief has afforded the means of collecting the majority of the specimens of adzes in museums. The country and jungle people find them, mainly in river beds after floods, and keep them in the belief that they have a magical or celestial origin, but can generally be persuaded to part with them for a small sum. House to house enquiries for “Batu Lintar” form one of the peroccupations of any collecting expedition in the central and northern parts of the peninsula.

Considerable numbers are also found in the course of alluvial mining, an open neolithic site on the river Tembel- - 30 ing was excavated by Evans (1931 a), and specimens have been found in caves associated with pottery.

All the quadrangular implements give the impression of being the tools of workers in wood, the smallest may have been hafted as chisels rather than adzes.

The “Tembeling” knife is clearly not a wood-cutting tool; it might have been used for skinning animals and cutting up meat or it may be a reaping knife.

The stone rings were probably used as ornaments; the smaller ones may well have been arm bangles. It has been suggested that they are club-heads, but most of them seem too fragile for this purpose. Apart from the occasional axes, which would be equally suitable for felling trees, the only obvious weapons of polished stone are two spear heads recorded by Evans from Kelantan and Pahang (Evans, 1930 a, 1931 b).

The pottery associated with the Malayan Neolithic is no less interesting than the stone artifacts. Unlike these, the greater part of it has been found in caves and has been encountered mainly in the course of excavation of mesolithic cave deposits. In such cases the pottery (almost always in the form of scattered shards) has been found in the superficial and shallow layers. A certain amount of mixing with the higher mesolithic deposits is often encountered. Although this may indicate a chronological overlap of the occupation of the country by the mesolithic and neolithic people, it could also be caused by the action of burrowing animals and insects. The practice of the neolithic people of burying their dead in caves, sometimes actually in mesolithic culture deposit, is an added complication. Pottery and neolithic implements were first recorded in indubitable association by Evans at an open site at Nyong on the river Tembeling, (Evans, 1928 b, 1931 a). Noone (1939) records a very important find of burials in a rock shelter in Kelantan with pottery as grave furniture and typical quadrangular adzes. In 1939 I found pottery and neoliths in a cave at Gua Musang in Kelantan in which evidence of habitation by the mesolithic people was absent (Tweedie, 1940). These instances may be taken as evidence that the pottery is a product of the true Neolithic culture, a conclusion arrived at long ago by the French prehistorians working on the equivalent culture in Indo-China.

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The neolithic pottery does not display a very advanced technique. It is generally dark in colour with sand and charcoal tempering and often, especially inside the vessel, a polished surface probably produced by burnishing with the application of soot. A type with a red clay slip has also been found. Ornamentation is unambitious; cord-marking is by far the commonest pattern, more than half the shards being impressed in this way. Simple incised patterns are sometimes found and marks made with the crenulated edge of a shell (Collings, 1936, pl. 11, 12; Tweedie, 1940, pl. 7, 8, 9). The remarkable feature of this pottery is the variety of form displayed by the vessels. Except in Noone's (1939) rock-shelter in Kelantan no undoubted neolithic pots have been found whole, but rim shards are very common and some complete and partial reconstructions have been made from material from Kalantan and Pahang (Noone, 1939, pl. XLVII, XLVIII; Tweedie, 1940, pl. X and Fig. 3 in this paper). These show a range of form quite out of keeping with a purely utilitarian attitude towards their ware by the neolithic potters, and a most pleasing lack of “standardisation.” Hardly any two vessels are alike, all are well proportioned and graceful, sometimes a little exuberant (Fig. 3b) but never grotesque. The makers of these vessels were artists, and pottery was an important thing in the lives of the Malayan neolithic people, a fact that should be remembered whenever attempts are made to reconstruct their way of life.

Little is known of the potters' methods. The ware is not wheel made, but there is evidence that turn-tables were used. In the course of excavations in Kelantan (Tweedie, 1940), a peculiar type of object was reconstructed from fragments of earthenware found in a cave together with typical neolithic pottery and tools. A sketch was sent to the Batavia Museum and Dr. A. N. van der Hoop discovered in the collection specimens of a very similar type of object collected in Atjeh, Sumatra, by Prof. Snouck Hurgronje and actually observed by him in use as potter's turn-tables. Both the Kelantan and the Achinese objects have the form of a flat dish on a hollow conical or cylindrical stand with a round hole in the middle of the dish opening into the stand (Fig. 3e, f). There is nothing in this design which immediately suggests a potter's turn-table, but the close - 32 resemblance between these two highly peculiar objects, one of which has actually been observed in use as such, renders this interpretation of the Kelantan specimens the most likely one.

In 1941 Mr. G. Burgess of the Malayan Education Department conducted experiments with local clays to try to ascertain what source of clay the Neolithic people used. Of all his results those which most nearly resembled the neolithic ware were obtained by the use of mud from the sea coast or river mouths. If the neolithic people really depended on this source for their clay, those living in the head-waters of the Pahang and Kelantan rivers (where remains of their culture are most abundant) must have made long journeys to the coast. This they may well have done as their great variety of carpenter's tools strongly suggests a race of expert boat builders.

The possibility that they used the caves for the manufacture of pottery has been discussed (Tweedie, 1940, p. 18). If this were so, remains of marine clay of recent date (i.e., containing shells of recent mollusca and foraminifera) might be expected to occur in dry caves where it would have protection from rain. Unfortunately no excavation has been conducted since Mr. Burgess told me of his results, but one tantalising shred of evidence has recently come to hand. In a sample of debris collected for its content of limestone-dwelling land molluscs by a Malay collector at Kota Tongkat (a limestone hill containing caves) in Pahang, I found three specimens of the common small marine gastropod Iravadia trochlearis (Gould), which may be found in any sample of mud dredged around the Malayan coasts. The shells were not fossilised as they floated in water (the land shells were separated by flotation) and their presence at this locality far inland is not easy to explain unless they came there by human agency.

No claim is made that Mr. Burgess' experiments or the occurrence of these shells prove that the neolithic potters visited the coast to obtain their clay, but it should be enough to persuade prehistorians in Malaya to examine carefully for recent marine shells any pieces of clay that they find in caves containing neolithic remains.

No skeletal remains indubitably associated with neolithic artifacts have been examined. In the rock shelter - 33 Gua Menteri in the headwaters of the river Nenggiri in Kelantan, Noone (1939) found burials containing pots as grave furniture, together with stone implements. He was unable to do more than dig trial trenches, which he did with scrupulous regard for preserving the site for controlled excavation. An idea of the richness and importance of this site may be given by quoting briefly from his report (p. 170).

“Two trial trenches were made, one at either end of the shelter. The finds were so rich that sections had continually to be abandoned. Even then barely 10 per cent of the area available for excavation was touched.”

Mr. Noone lost his life in Malaya during the Japanese occupation and the site remains unexcavated and, as far as is known, intact. Examination of the skeletal remains would certainly throw light on the racial affinities of the neolithic people, and there are indications of a wealth of pottery and other artifacts which would very likely surpass the whole sum of neolithic finds made in this country hitherto. Furthermore, Gua Menteri is not in an isolated hill; limestone hills dominate the scene for many miles along the banks of the Nenggiri and its tributaries and are full of caves and rock-shelters, and it would be surprising if exploration failed to reveal many more similar sites. Exploration and excavation in this region is perhaps the most important and certainly the most rewarding task that awaits prehistorians in Malaya.

As regards the dating of the Malayan Neolithic we cannot do better at present than follow Heine Geldern in his argument for that of the Austronesian migration into the Malay Archipelago (1945, p. 138-139), since it seems most likely that Malaya lay in its path. It would be redundant to repeat the whole argument here; briefly it is that the migration into Indonesia antedated the development on the Asiatic mainland of the tanged adze, which in turn took place before the migration of the same (Austro-Asiatic) peoples into India, which in turn again, preceded the immigration of the Aryan peoples into India. This succession of termini ante quem is interpreted as dating the migration into the Archipelago “with great probability” between 2,500 and 1,500 B.C.

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Now at this time civilisations for which chronological details of fair accuracy are available were already flourishing far to the west of our area, and small, relatively indestructible artifacts, especially beads, were diffusing out from these centres of civilisation. Such objects have already been found in association with both past and existing cultures in South East Asia. For the dating of past cultures they provide, obviously, no proof of antiquity (since they are still in circulation, e.g., in Borneo) but they do provide evidence of a date subsequent to their own manufacture, a chronological terminus a quo, and this is exactly what is wanted to supplement the inferential evidence advanced by Dr. Heine Geldern.

The richness of the Malayan Neolithic and the existence of sites of the type of Gua Menteri arouse hopes that if excavation is conducted in the future on a sufficient scale, such evidence, a bead or a scarab or a dateable pot-sherd in the grave of a Malayan neolithic man, may be forthcoming.

  • COLLINGS, H. D. 1936. “Report of an archaeological excavation in Kedah, Malay Peninsula.” Bull. Raffles Museum, Ser. B, 1, p. 5.
  • EVANS, I. H. N. 1922. “On a find of stone implements at Tanjong Malim.” Journ. F.M.S. Museums, IX, p. 257.
  • — — 1926. “A hoard of stone implements from Batu Gajah.” Journ. F.M.S. Museums, XII, p. 67.
  • — — 1927. “Papers on the ethnology and archaeology of the Malay Peninsula.” Cambridge University Press, 1927.
  • — — 1928a. “On slab-built graves in Perak.” Journ. F.M.S. Museums, XII, p. 111.
  • — — 1928b. “On a find of stone implements associated with pottery.” ib. p. 133.
  • — — 1930a. “On a stone spearhead from Kelantan. Journ. F.M.S. Museums, XV, p. 1.
  • — — 1930b. “Further notes on stone implements from Pahang.” ib. p. 7.
  • — — 1931a. “Excavations at Nyong, Tembeling River, Pahang.” ib. p. 51.
  • — — 1931b. “A stone spearhead from Pahang.” ib. p. 65.
  • — — 1931c. “A note on beaked stone adzes.” ib. p. 67.
  • HEINE GELDERN, R. von. 1945. “Prehistoric Research in the Netherland Indies.” Science and Scientists in the Netherland Indies, New York, 1945.
  • LINEHAN, W. 1928. “Some discoveries on the Tembeling.” Journ. Malayan Branch R.A.S., VI, part 4, p. 66.
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  • NOONE, H. D. 1939. “Report on a new neolithic site in Ula Kelantan.” Journ. F.M.S. Museums, XV, p. 170.
  • TWEEDIE, M. W. F. 1940. “Report on excavations in Kelantan.” Journ. Malayan Branch R.A.S., XVIII, part 2, p. 1.
  • — — 1942. “Prehistory in Malaya.” Journ. R.A.S. of Great Britain and Ireland, 1942, p. 1.
  • — — 1947 “Prehistoric objects from the Tui Gold Mine near Padang Tengku, Pahang.” Journ. Malayan Branch R.A.S., XX, part 1, p. 41.

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1   Several other stone cultures, possibly Neolithic but of more or less problematical affinities, have been found in the Malay Peninsula. A summarised account of them, with references, is given in Tweedie, 1942, and they are not dealt with in the present paper.