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Megaliths of the Kelabit Highlands

IN THE MIRI DIVISION OF SARAWAK, in the Kelabit Highlands, hundreds of stone carvings and built structures dot the jungle landscape. Nearly always covered in green moss, and surrounded by shrubs, rotting branches and dead leaves, they seem a part of the ‘natural’ jungle. To innocent eyes, they lend an air of mystery. Who built them? When were they built? What were they used for? Some are found in a ruinous state. They have been abandoned, like relics of a forgotten time. Or at least that was how they appeared to me when I first encountered them some seven years ago. At the time, I was (with two other colleagues of mine) conducting ethnographic research on highland salt production. One of the field trips took me to the Kelabit Highlands. It was on the trek to the salt spring near the abandoned village of Pa’ Main where I experienced my first encounter with an upland stone monument (I saw two of them at different locations, in fact). It was, as they say, love at first sight. I would go on to study the archaeology of the upland monuments, and the topic would become the focus of my ongoing doctoral research.

In archaeological parlance, stone monuments like these are called ‘megaliths’ (from Greek: mega meaning ‘large’, and lithos meaning ‘stone’). In the local Kelabit language, various terms are used to describe the stones, indicating both form and function. Batuh narit refers to rock boulders carved with designs of human or animal figures, and/or symbols. Meanwhile, batuh nangan (‘supported stone’) refers to dolmens (or ‘stone tables’) or slabbuilt structures. Lungun batuh (‘stone coffin’), on the other hand, are cylindrical containers hewn out of stone (usually undressed, although some may be carved with designs). There are also the batuh senuped (‘erected stone’) and perupun (‘stone mounds’).

A stone jar with a slab cover at Long Sebua’
This carved stone in Long Banga is known to the locals as Batu Kalong.


The megalithic culture of the Kelabit. Highlands is possibly an ancient and, at the same time, a continuous one. Recent archaeological research suggests that some of the earliest stone mounds were constructed as early as around 2,500 years ago. Excavations conducted at a number of megalithic sites in the Kelabit Highlands have also found an array of artefacts such as cremated bones, stone and glass beads, local earthenware and trade ceramics, and metal objects belonging to different time periods between 2,000 and a few hundred years ago. Among the Kelabit, megalithic practices were observed until around 1950, when the tradition ceased owing to modernisation and the people’s conversion to Christianity. Traditionally, megaliths were built during irau (‘feast’) as part of elaborate funerary rites of elite members of the Kelabit society. The batuh nangan and the lungun batuh, for example, were burial monuments where the bones of the deceased were placed in a secondary burial event known as burak nulang. The batuh senuped, on the other hand, commemorated the deceased or marked the location of the grave. The perupun, besides functioning as memorials, are also said to be the final repositories for the valuable properties (beads, gongs and jars) of heirless elites.

The indigenous Kelabit ethnic group believe that they have populated the highland region since time immemorial. The stone monuments are thus, evidence of their long history in the landscape and represent traces of their ancestors. Many monuments are believed to be the work of Kelabit cultural heroes, whose exploits are told in oral stories and epic songs. One Kelabit origin story recounts how a legendary figure by the name of Seluyah carved designs on rocks and made holes in rock that became caves. A number of rock carvings are also said to bear the footprints or self-portraits of the hero Tuked Rini. Meanwhile, certain stone structures are believed to be his ‘cooking stoves’ or ‘sharpening stones’. These stoneworks were made in the mythical time of getoman lalud (‘joining with power’) when people were giants or had greater powers. It is said that Tuked Rini and others of his time were able to fly or to morph into other animal or plant beings. Thus, the stoneworks are also said to have been made to demonstrate strength and superhuman powers.

Probably the best known stone monument in the Kelabit Highlands is the Batuh Ritung. The Batuh Ritung monument is remarkable because it is the only known example in Sarawak, or perhaps even Borneo, of a large dolmen (batuh nangan) that is still standing until today. Because of its uniqueness, the monument was gazetted as a historical monument under the Sarawak Cultural Heritage Ordinance 1993. The Batuh Ritung because, according to legend, it is the tomb of a Kelabit aristocrat by the name of Ritung. Today, it is a popular tourist attraction, and many visitors have made the 5-hour trek from Bario to the village of Pa’ Lungan (where the Batuh Ritung is located) just to catch a glimpse of the famous Kelabit monument. In the village, there is even a homestay called the ‘Batuh Ritung Guesthouse’, attesting to the monument’s iconic status.

The Batuh Ritung was also the site of an archaeological excavation conducted by the British archaeologist Tom Harrisson and the Sarawak Museum in 1962. Memories of this excavation, as well as of Tom Harrisson, continue to exist in the Highlands until today. It is fair to say that Harrisson was, and still is, fondly remembered by the Kelabit. Mention ‘Tom Harrisson’ during any visit to the highlands, and you are bound to hear stories about this largerthan-life man. A rather amusing story occurred during the excavation of the Batuh Ritung in 1962. As told to me by a descendant of a Kelabit man who worked with Tom Harrisson during the excavation:
When they were digging [underneath the Batuh Ritung’s capstone], they would take turns. When it was my father’s turn, he was afraid that the big and heavy stone would suddenly fall on top of him. Tom Harrisson saw my father’s fear and asked, “Why? Are you afraid of death? If you are afraid, I will lie down underneath the stone while you dig. If it falls, we die together.” After that, my father resumed digging.

Fear (or perhaps more accurately, respect) of the stones is also manifested in local beliefs. Megalithic sites are believed to be potent, and are residing places of spirits. Thus, they are places to be respected, and to some people, perhaps best avoided. It is not uncommon to hear stories of people who fell ill after bad encounters with the stones. In the mixed Sa’ban and Kenyah Leppo’ Ke village of Long Banga, just south of the Kelabit Highlands, a carved rock called Batu Kalong was moved because it was believed to be causing bad dreams among some villagers. Today, it is found in a nondescript location at the edge of the village, sheltered by an unassuming wooden hut with rusted zinc roofings. Across the road from its original location in the middle of the village, now stands an Evangelical Christian (Sidang Injil Borneo) church.

During one of my recent fieldwork visits, I experienced firsthand the local belief regarding megalithic sites. One late afternoon, with two Penan companions, I was returning to the village of Long Beruang from the stone jar site at Ba’ Sebua, when suddenly dark clouds loomed menacingly overhead. “It’s because earlier you disturbed the stone”, explained one of the Penan men. In a moment of epiphany, I then realised the real reason why earlier, my Penan friends were hesitant when I requested them to remove the vegetation cover on some stone jars (I wanted to expose the jars in order to document them and to take photographs). It was not that they were unhelpful, but their beliefs dictated that they should let the jars be.

Fortunately for us, except for the dark sky, nothing untoward happened for the remainder of the journey. As the above narratives have shown, there are many aspects of the megaliths that are of interest not only to archaeologists and heritage practitioners, but also to the general public. To me personally, the megaliths of the Kelabit Highlands are a truly fascinating and complex cultural phenomenon. Not only are they a window to the past, but they are also a bridge to the present. Most important is their significance to the local upland communities. To the locals, megaliths are important signifiers of identity. They are also embodiments of personal and collective history and memory. Today, megalithic monuments are also seen as markers of territory, and are thus important as evidence for local indigenous land claims. Moreover, they attract visitors to the Kelabit Highlands, and thus contribute to the growing local tourism industry, which in turn generates income for the local population.

As heritage of not only the upland indigenous groups, but also of the state or country in general, the megaliths of the Kelabit Highlands are truly a cultural treasure that needs to be preserved and further studied.

Nicholas Gani is a lecturer and archaeologist at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS). He has been conducting research on the megalithic monuments of Sarawak since 2013, and was part of the Early Central Borneo Project that investigated a number of megalithic and old settlement sites in the Kelabit Highlands (Facebook page: Early Central Borneo Project). Nicholas is also currently pursuing a doctoral degree in archaeology at the University of Oxford, UK.

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