Cavemen in Jurong and Pulau Ubin: Singapore’s Stone Age

Pahang, Malaysia

Neolithic Stone Age (12,500 – 6,500 years ago)

The lush tropics give way to a narrow river. The water is brown and muddy, but still glimmers from the sun’s immense light. Disrupting the relatively still river, a man clothed with bits of softened tree bark, paddles a small canoe. A hollowed-out tree trunk, the craft only has space for him and some coastal mud that he has dug up. By bringing the mud inland to his primitive wooden dwelling, he is hoping to make the pottery and apparatus he needs to store yield from his livestocks.

Elsewhere, in the region that Singaporeans now call Tuas, another small tribe is thriving. Although the men aren’t as advanced as those in Pahang, they’ve started building tools for themselves. They may or may not know about the existence of another settlement on Pulau Ubin, and live a solitary life, considering that there are no other tribes in southern Malaysia.

This is the picture that years of archaeological analysis paints about our region’s prehistoric period. Surprising to most, Singapore’s history extends way beyond Raffles, and way beyond Sang Nila Utama. About 10,000 years ago, the borders of current day Singapore are said to have contained at least 2 different settlements of primitive man. But how exactly do we know this? 

Colonial Discoveries

Science, discovery and exploration has always been part of the colonial process. As Rudyard Kipling put it, colonisers felt that it was the “white man’s burden” to introduce modernity and civilisation in the colonies that they occupied. In a similar vein, the late 19th century saw the rise of archaeologists eager to dig up and excavate sites throughout the Malay peninsula. In the north, particularly in the regions of Kelantan, Pahang and Perak, stone tools, weapons and pottery were excavated and sent to be analysed.

Tuas TV (pictured above) was later built near Tanjong Karang. (Source)

In Singapore, English botanist and geologist Henry Nicholas Ridley came across the first stone age artifacts in 1891. Obtained from the beach at Tanjong Karang (currently situated near the Tuas Checkpoint), the artifact was a “fairly heavy edge-ground round-axe of dark brown stone.” Soon after, on the opposite side of the Straits of Johor, similar round axes were found on a beach called Tanjong Bunga. An official excavation of the site was held in 1938, with the resulting report stating:

At a depth of about three feet a layer of sand, lying between two layers of mangrove peat, was found to contain artifacts. These included small ground neolithic axes, flakes, pieces of haematite (iron ore), resin and quartz microliths (used in spear points and arrowheads). Two more round-axes were found on the beach but none occurred in the excavation. 

Round-axes found on Pulau Ubin, Singapore. (Source)

It’s important to note that the round-axes found at Tanjong Bunga, Karang and later at Pulau Ubin are special. While axes of rectangular shape were discovered throughout Malaysia, archaeologists had never come across a round axe before. The axes were also primitive as compared to their northern counterparts — with poor workmanship and finishing. As such, experts determined that the tribes present in Singapore were completely different from any other previously encountered in the Malayisan Peninsula. Also, since all artifacts were buried in mangrove peat, it is possible that these people preferred to live near the shore instead of further inland.

Apart from this however, little else is known about Singapore’s stone-age, as excavations have not been commissioned since. The Tanjong Karang site is now part of a PUB occupied area, while the precise location of the Pulau Ubin site is unknown. 

Neolithic Stone Age in Malaysia 

Considering the lack of information about Singapore’s Stone Age, it might make sense to look at findings from the Malaysian side to get a better picture of the time period. As people entered the Neolithic age, they began to process, knead and shape clay into various shapes such as water containers, tableware, pots and plans. These objects also showed artistic merit — with decorations such as string signs, geometric cravings and rice. The pottery was then used either for religious purposes or storage. This extra storage was imperative, as by this point, the men had probably learnt to farm crops such as rice and yam.  

Examples of pottery from the neolithic Malaysian people. (Source)

With regards to stone tools, most specimens found were either axes or flake tools. Only a minority of stone artifacts were weapons like spears, proving that the men were relatively peaceful in nature. Some tools were also used for woodwork, as there is evidence of the neolithic people being skilled carpenters who built small wood boats and houses. Clothing and jewelry were also crafted with material like stone, shells and wood carvings. 

The overall impression conveyed by the stone and pottery relics of the Malayasian neolithic people is that they were artistic, peaceful and industrious. It is highly possible that their Singaporean counterparts shared some of these traits.

Problems with Prehistoric Archeology

Some might wonder why Singapore doesn’t invest more into its archeological and research efforts. Afterall, there is so little we know about our prehistoric period and so many opportunities for knowledge acquisition.

Partially, it’s due to the way that these neolithic people lived. While those before them inhabited caves and rockshelters, the neolithic man lived in open-air villages. This means that the sites of their dwelling could only be found accidentally — much like how the Tanjong Karang relics were found. Even when they are found, Singapore’s climate and ecology proves a challenge as abandoned villages are quickly overwhelmed by vegetation, degrading most artifacts. Specifically, since Singapore’s neolithic people lived near rivers and the water, remains are liable to flooding. Many villages might have been overwhelmed and swept away by floods, while others could be obliterated by the deposit of soil and sediment.

John Miksic, Singapore’s most famous archeologist. (Source)

Deliberate policy measures also explain why archaeological excavations are limited. John Miksic, arguably Singapore’s most prominent archaeologist, suggests that we should reserve dig sites for future generations. With more effective technologies (and hopefully better funding), future researchers would be better able to extract artifacts and thereby knowledge more efficiently. In a 2006 interview with Lianhe Zaobao, Miksic also talked about the challenges that local archaeologists face.”Singapore is probably the only country in the world that does not employ state archaeologists. Even the government of Brunei, with a population one-tenth that of Singapore’s, hires them. Singapore has chosen to be different in this area, which is a very strange phenomenon,” he said. The fact that there is no legislation requiring that archaeologists be consulted before construction works proceed, unlike in European countries, was also a failing according to him.

Even with these problems, it is heartening to see that there is still interest in Singapore’s early history. Since 1998, NUS has organised a course called the “History of Singapore before the Landing of Raffles” yearly, which sees high attendance rates. While the bicentennial didn’t talk about Singapore’s prehistory (presumably due to a lack of information) it generated substantial discourse about Singapore’s pre-colonial history. Hopefully, these events serve to inspire a new generation of historians and archeologists. For without them, we will never have a true picture of our past, present and future.

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