The first inhabitants in Borneo in Southeast Asia may not actually be related to Indigenous or Aboriginal Australians, according to a study published on June 27 in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. The revelation is the result of reanalysis of the remains of  the “Deep Skull,” the oldest modern human discovered on the island.

“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,” says Darren Curnoe , an associate professor at the University Of New South Wales.

The study also states that the  Deep Skull was not an adolescent boy but a middle-aged woman. The Deep Skull is 37,000 years old. It was discovered by the famous British anthropologist Don Brothwell in 1958 in the Niah Cave at Sarawak, Borneo.

Aboriginal Australians

Bones from the 37,000 year old Deep Skull from Niah Cave in Sarawak.. Credit: Darren Curnoe

This debunks the previously held history of the region, according to Curnoe , who is also the director of the university’s Palaeontology, Geobiology and Earth Archives Research Center. The study was supported by other researchers from the Sarawak Museum Department and Griffith University.

Upon Deep Skull’s discovery, Brothwell claimed that it belonged to a teenage boy. Previously, it was believed to be related or possibly even the ancestors of Aboriginal Australians, particularly Tasmanians. This theory has been uncontested for almost six decades.

“It is exciting to think that after almost 60 years there’s still a lot to learn from the Deep Skull – so many secrets still to be revealed,” adds Sarawak Museum Department’s director Ipoi Datan. “Our discovery that the remains might well be the ancestors of Indigenous Bornean people is a game changer for the prehistory of South-East Asia.”

This debunks the belief that Southeast Asia was previously populated by people related to the Indigenous Australians and New Guineans and were replaced by farmers from southern China several thousand years ago.

This suggests that the Indigenous people of Borneo adopted farming when it started 3,000 years ago.

The findings demonstrate that current research from our history may be inaccurate. Hence, reanalysis could help unlock more information.

“We need to rethink our ideas about the region’s prehistory, which was far more complicated than we’ve appreciated until now,” says Curnoe.