Prehistoric Treasures and Old Material Culture

Text by Sundralingam Saminathan
Photos by Lau Sook Mei

The PHS field trip on Sunday, 30 January attracted seven society members and three new friends. It was a small but happy group, eager with contained excitement.

Traipsing across the field.

We began with the amazing rock paintings at Gunung Panjang, Tambun. Our guide for the day, Hong reminded the gang on the Dos and Don’ts before leading us across the open field to an unkempt ‘heritage’ pavilion at the bottom of the concrete stairs. 128 steep steps to the rockshelter, so up we went.

Mohd Taib: clean by example.

The rock paintings are found on the exposed, west-facing cliffs, some as high as 10-metres from the floor of the rocky ledge. Huffing and puffing, we gazed awe-struck. Some paintings have faded, some are damaged by water and vandals. How did the paintings survive the weathering? How and why did the prehistoric men paint so high up the cliff face? Intriguing and magical!

Surprisingly, despite its importance, no proper studies have been done since its discovery in 1959 until, in 2009, an Archaeology student at Universiti Sains Malaysia , Noel Hidalgo Tan surveyed and mapped all the paintings he could find, and studied them for his Master thesis.

Just how many paintings are there? Noel found five hundred, in ten groups. Iron oxide found at the hill is assumed the colour ‘red’. To date them, Noel analysed little bits of paint samples. Artefacts previously uncovered cannot be traced, so went the material evidence of its Neolithic age.

We recognized the figurative paintings: tapir, deer and a giant catfish once thought to be a dugong, a manatee. Drawings of men are prominent, especially a captivating one with a long phallus.

The giant catfish.

Charmed, we pierced in wonderment but the mosquitoes got to us. Before we descended, we took in the view of Ipoh against the backdrop of the Kledang Range . Yes, Gunung Panjang would have been a landmark even in Neolithic time.

Looking down to the Syed Putra Army Camp – note the Sulva Lines Cemetery.

Our next destination was Gunung Naga Mas, just past Kampung Kepayang. We hesitated at the overgrown path to the cave but some foreign workers at the foothill prodded us on.

Our brave new friend, Thomas found a stick and began ‘slashing’ his way up the hand-laid stones steps. Hong followed, clearing the track for our fellow ‘adventurers’. Progress was slow but our patience paid off; we found an old nylon rope which guided us up the hill.

As we looked down to the barren land in Tekkah, where tin was mined, the stench of guano (bat droppings) wafted out the dark end of the chamber, which used to house a Chinese temple known as Gua Naga Mas or ‘golden dragon cave’. In the cool dampness, we stayed put, imagining spirits moving freely around us.

The fossil bones.

In a small alcove to the side we came face to face with the fossils. Ever the doctor, enthusiastic Mike named the bones embedded in the ceiling about 5-metres from the floor. A renowned zoologist has identified the ‘skeleton’ as that of a leopard. The only piece of research so far dated the bones to Paleolithic, between 10,000 and one-million-years-old. For the bones to be stuck to the rocks, we reckoned that the area had gone through extreme pressure for a very, very long time. But how does one wrap one’s head around such concept of eons and prehistoric time?

The descent was light work, but the energy sapping ‘hike’ made us very hungry, and so we rushed to Gopeng for lunch.

Our lunch in the Malay café on Jalan Pasar was very good. Sated and rested, we began our Sunday stroll in historic Gopeng.

Gopeng is famous for the Eu Yang San, the Chinese medical chain started in 1879. With a road named after him, Eu Kong is the founding patriarch while his illustrious son Eu Tong Sen built it into an international conglomerate.

Founded in 1888, the Tseng Lung Hakka Association is the oldest clan association in town. The photo gallery is most impressive, with formal portraits of noted clansmen and women. Here, Sook Mei discovered the photographs of her maternal grandfather and uncles, who were prominent clansmen in the Kinta Valley.

Tseng Lung Hakka Association.

We walked up High Street to the changkat to cool off in the shade of the old angsana tree dominating a small park by the mining pool, then past the town padang to enjoy the Chinese temple theatre. We crossed the road to the sad remains of the 30-metre section of the water pipeline of Gopeng. We returned to town through Jalan Kampong Rawa, where we saw the rows of century-old coolies’ housing, and the original public toilet block, minus the ‘buckets’ for excrement.

Gopeng’s iconic pipeline – what’s left of it.

Where stories of Gopeng are told.

At the Gopeng Museum on Jalan Eu Kong, we discovered Gopeng’s material culture. Its curator, Mr Phang See Kong was hospitable, offering mineral water and snacks. More discovery; I noticed my great-great-grandfather’s photograph on the wall! He was Vellasamy Pillai, the pioneer who built Gopeng’s Amman Hindu Temple in 1885. This fact was verified by my great-grand-uncle, Dato’ Rajasingam.

My great-great-grandfather.

Snacking in the museum.

Phang arranged our visit to the Heritage House on Jalan Sungai Itek (Wayang Lane). This shophouse has adapted by its owner Mr Wong Kuan Cheong into a warren of interesting spaces on three levels, using salvaged building material.

Inside the Heritage House.

Satiated and tired out, we left Gopeng with Phang’s promise of invitations to the opening of the Heritage House on World Heritage Day.

A parting shot.

If you should want to go to the prehistoric sites on your own, never go alone, and make sure you let someone know when you are expected home. Be self-responsible at these prehistoric sites and remember the Dos and Don’ts below.

– Notice to All Visitors-
Welcome to one of the most significant pre-historic sites in Malaysia.

Pre-historical relics are rare but important because of what we can learn from them.
The locations where they are found are important as it presents to us the context for their significance within the region.
It is a rare opportunity to be able to enjoy significant relics in their natural state.
To protect and conserve this site, please observe the following:


Do’s

1.   Take notes and pictures. You will be pleasantly surprised by the details captured which may have eluded your gaze.

2.   Stay on the designated path to avoid damaging the site and for your own safety. Rock-falls can seriously injure or kill.

3.   Get in touch with Perak Heritage Society if you wish to know more about this site: https://perakheritage.wordpress.com/

4.   Report any abuse or encroachment upon the site to PHS. Pictures will be of great help.

5.   Help to conserve this site by keeping it clean & hazard free. Dispose of wastes appropriately. It is best that you take them away to the nearest waste bins.


Don’ts

1.   Don’t remove any relic or material from the site.

2.   Don’t touch, paint, draw or climb up the rock face; it is to preserve the relic as well as to mind your own safety.

3.   Don’t litter; wastes attract pests, contaminate the site, and pose a fire & health hazard.

4.   Don’t smoke within the vicinity of the site. It’s both a fire and health hazard.

Note: It is an offence to remove, damage or deface historical artefacts, the penalties include a hefty fine and jail time.

Proposed by Mr Cheah Soon Tatt, Penang, 2009
For more stories please click here.

Update ~ 2nd January 2016 : Ancient Cave Paintings Used to Teach New Lessons

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7 Responses to “Prehistoric Treasures and Old Material Culture”


  1. 1 Yeo Hock Yew February 26, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Dear Sook Mei,

    Thank you for your interesting report on the visit to the pre-historic sites outside Ipoh. It must be an unusual thrill to discover that photo of your great-great-grandfather in the museum.

    The mention of Eu Tong Seng is a reminder to me of how interconnected Malaysia and Singapore are in history and culture. He was born in Penang, prospered in tin mining in Perak, and contributed to the early development in Singapore. Today he has a main road (Eu Tong Seng Street) named after him, just where the Singapore General Hospital, the Police HQ, the Outram MRT Station, and Chinatown are. And I am living just across this major artery.

    I am in touch with Hong and noticed he was a significant part of that tour. We started our communication lines on Papan and Sybil Kathigasu after I had read her No Dram of Mercy. It lead me to visit quiet and forgotten Papan with my brothers not too long ago.

    I am going to be 63 years old soon but hope one day to join PHS in one of their heritage events soon.

    Interestingly I noticed that you switched from your third person name to a personal pronoun in the article. was that deliberate?

    I enjoyed too your write-up of the two railway stations fighting the battle against progress.

    Thank you again. Please keep your articles coming.

    Yeo Hock Yew

    • 2 perakheritage February 26, 2011 at 10:29 pm

      Dear Mr Yeo, thank you for the compliments. Before I commence, I’d like to point out that the report was written by my fellow committee member. So it was his great-great-grandfather he discovered in the museum. He was thrilled to bits, of course. It was a great trip and no trip is complete without our seasoned guide, Hong. Do join us in our future trips.

      Thank you for sharing that interesting piece of information on the significance of Eu Tong Sen in Singapore. It’s really amazing how the business and influence grew and spread across the globe and it all began from a small town called Gopeng.

      Only yesterday a report came out in a Chinese daily that demolition work on the Kuala Kangsar Railway Station (one of the two stations mentioned in our blog) will begin in early March. There goes another piece of tangible heritage. What a shame.

      On the positive side, we’ll definitely keep the articles going. Thanks for your continuous support.

      Sook Mei

  2. 3 Liz Price February 26, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    Great write up.
    Good to see there are still 2 reflective markers around the Naga Mas fossil. There used to be 9, in 2004, but 7 of them have disappeared. So it is good to have photographic records taken over the years.

  3. 4 Papan Jones February 27, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    Hello, Liz! Such a pity you were away when we did our walk. I missed your contribution of scientific notes.

    Hello Hock Yew, I hope you will put Gopeng on your must see the next time you come visit.

    • 5 Yeo Hock Yew February 28, 2011 at 11:58 pm

      Dear Papan,

      Thank you. Will try to put Gopeng on our map the next time my two brothers and I get to Perak. We have so far visited Ipoh (and Papan; is that how you got your name?), Taiping, Kuala Kangsar ( a town of cats, roti pratta and putu mayam) and Lumut. Yes, will try to get Gopeng on the radar screen.

      Wishing you good night and still intrigued by your name.

      Hock Yew

  4. 6 Papan Jones March 28, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    Glad to know you will go see Gopeng, a pioneer town of the Kinta Valley. Let me know when you come to town. It would be good to meet up. I may have other places of heri.interest for you.


  1. 1 Raya In Chemor « Perak Heritage Society Trackback on September 25, 2011 at 5:37 pm

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