Niah CaveThe skull may have been found in the Niah Cave (in Sarawak, an island in Southeast Asia) in 1958, by Sarawak Museum’s Tom Harrison, but advancements in technology have allowed for new insights, and the insights the research have made are quite astonishing.

The latest research has, led by University of New South Wales (UNSW) Australia Associate Professor Darren Curnoe, is now the most detailed inquest over the ancient cranium specimen since its original discovery.

Curnoe, the UNSW Paleontology, Geobiology, and Earth Archives Research Centre, director goes on to say, “Our analysis overturns long-held views about the early history of this region. We’ve found that these very ancient remains most closely resemble some of the Indigenous people of Borneo today, with their delicately built features and small body size, rather than Indigenous people from Australia.”

Originally, the “Deep Skull” was analyzed by Don Brothwell, who was a prominent anthropologist at the time. In 1960, Brothwell concluded, through his original analysis, that the Deep Skull must have belonged to an adolescent male. Furthermore, he argued that the specimen must have represented a population of early modern humans. These humans would have been closely related, and possibly even ancestral, to Indigenous Australians, and the Tasmanians in particular.

Curnoe comments, “Brothwell’s ideas have been highly influential and stood largely untested, so we wanted to see whether they might be correct after almost six decades,” adding that “Our study challenges many of these old ideas. It shows the Deep Skull is from a middle-aged female rather than a teenage boy, and has few similarities to Indigenous Australians. Instead, it more closely resembles people today from more northerly parts of South-East Asia.”

While there may be new analysis, the Deep Skull has long been a key fossil find as it has contributed to the development of the “two-layer” hypothesis that suggests South-East Asia was initially settled by early peoples related to Indigenous Australians and New Guineans who were then replaced by farmers who came from China, just a few thousand years ago.

Of course, this new study reveals something a bit different. The new study challenges the old theory by suggesting that, at least in Borneo, the earliest island inhabitants were more similar to modern indigenous people than to Indigenous Australians. This also suggests a much longer timeline of continuous habitation by these people.

The study has been published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution