The Recent Rock Drawings of the Lenggong Valley, Perak, Malaysia

Article excerpt



The rock art of East Asia is not well known and often overshadowed by research from Europe, southern Africa, Australia and the Americas. However, rock art has been consistently reported and studied in South, East and Southeast Asia since the late 1800s (e.g. for India see Cockburn 1899; Franke 1902; for Sri Lanka and Indonesia see Chen 2001). Rock art in Malaysia was reported as early as 1879 (Daly 1879; Price 2002: 239), around the same time that many significant sites in Spain and France, such as Altamira and Chabot, were being discovered (Bahn Sc Vertut 1997: 14-22). Charcoal drawings were found in three large caves of the Sungei Batu complex near Kuala Lumpur, with excavations uncovering stone tools and ceramics. Unfortunately, the drawings were badly vandalised before they could be recorded (Chen 2001: 767).

About 50 years later, a preliminary study of another cave with charcoal drawings was published by Evans (1927b). He photographed and briefly described Gua Badak, a small limestone cave in the Lenggong Valley, Perak. Further research was undertaken in the late 1950s with the discovery of Gua Tambun at Ipoh (Matthews 1959, I960; Knuth 1962) but by 1990 there were still only four sites known from peninsular Malaysia (Adi 1990: 92). There are now 15 known rock art sites from across this region (see Table 1 and Zulkifli 2003 for brief details of some), not including megaliths inscribed with symbols in the south. There are also a number of sites in Sabah (e.g. Bellwood 1988; Gansser 1990) and Sarawak (e.g. Datan 1993), and new discoveries continue to be made (e.g. Mokhtar et al. 2008). Despite this, only brief Malaysia-wide summaries of the rock art have been produced (Datan 1998a & b; Adi 2007; Mokhtar 2008) and only two detailed studies published (Datan 1993; Tan & Chia 2010).

In 2007, a new Malaysian rock art research programme was initiated. One of its goals is to locate and document previously unknown sites and in this regard there are many areas of high potential requiring survey. Work began with surveying for unrecorded sites in part of Sabah (Mokhtar et al. 2008), the first comprehensive recording of Gua Tambun (Tan 2010; Tan & Chia 2010) and the mapping of sites in the Lenggong Valley of Perak, in the northern Malaysian Peninsula. We report on the latter, placing this art in historic, archaeological and ethnographic contexts before interpreting it in relation to changes brought about by the arrival of Europeans.

Lenggong Valley rock art sites

The Lenggong Valley archaeological area (Figure 1) is located in the state of Perak about 90km north of Ipoh. The Banjaran Bintang limestone range bounds its western side while the massive Banjaran Titiwangsa lies to the east. It runs roughly north-south with the Perak River flowing swiftly through the centre of the valley floor. It is part of the traditional rainforest home of the Semang, often referred to as Negritos in early literature (Skeat & Blagden 1906; Schebesta 1928; Evans 1937). Genetic studies suggest Semang Negritos have been in northern Malaysia for at least 50 000 years, possibly associated with an expansion of modern humans out of Africa (Hill et al. 2006).


This is an area of high rainfall, a warm to hot humid environment and, traditionally, thick jungle. There are 72 limestone gua (caves/shelters) in the now light- to medium-forested Lenggong area. All 72 have been documented but only 5 have rock art, consisting of about 400 surviving charcoal drawings: Gua Badak, Gua Dayak, Gua Gelok, Gua Batu Puteh and Gua Batu Tukang (Figure 1). Evans (1918) states there were drawings in a sixth cave, Gua Kajang, but they have not survived. All of the rock art sites are located low in the landscape, close to the valley floor and river, in contrast to early Neolithic and Palaeolithic sites, such as Gua Gunung Runtuh where the Perak Man burial was uncovered, which are at varying altitudes. …