Guar Kepah: Penang's Only Prehistoric Site
By Lim Sok SwanJune 2022 FEATURE
IN 2008, Prof Dato' Dr. Mokhtar Saidin, the director of Universiti Sains Malaysia's (USM) Centre for Global Archaeological Research (CGAR), and his team began doing research in Guar Kepah to collect data for their book Early History of Penang – which was later published by USM.
As part of their research, CGAR conducted an excavation in 2010 to dig up further evidence at the archaeological site. The excavation discovered shell middens with ancient artefacts – this persuaded the Penang State Government to conserve the site. Through Chief Minister Incorporated (CMI), the state government planned to create a gallery on-site in 2017, but a 5,710-year-old Neolithic skeleton named Penang Woman, discovered unexpectedly during the process changed the plans.
The discovery of this remarkably intact skeleton spurred another round of excavation from April to September 2017 to further unearth the bones and more artefacts in the shell midden where it was found.
But this was not the first excavation that had been done in the area. In fact, to date, three excavations that spanned two centuries have been conducted at Guar Kepah; the first ended in 1934, while the second and third excavations did not begin until 2008 and 2017, respectively.
Guar Kepah Archaeological Site
If you travel on roads near Kepala Batas, you might notice maroon-coloured tourist attraction signs that read "Galeri Arkeologi Guar Kepah". This archaeological site, an obscure, little-known spot near the Penang-Kedah border, has been receiving heavy news coverage in the past few years, especially after the momentous discovery of Penang Woman.
Guar Kepah is significant for being the only prehistoric site found in Penang, as well as the only site in Peninsular Malaysia with ancient human settlements close to the marine environment.
Among the most important discoveries in Guar Kepah are shell middens, ancient landfills for household garbage that are generally accompanied by other artefacts and eco-facts from ancient human settlements. They contain useful archaeological information about nutrition, behaviour and activities. The shells found may also be dated using the radiocarbon technique to estimate the age of the skeletal remains and the chronology of their settlement, as well as historical environmental activities. Coastal archaeological sites such as Guar Kepah are distinguished by the amount of seafood consumed that has remained to form a mound, especially in a long-term habitat.
"Archaeological remnants in any place would be related to their surroundings," says Nurul Amira binti Md Isa, curator of the Archaeological Unit of Penang from CMI. "It is said that prehistoric people's lifestyles were modified by optimising resources from local surroundings."
Artefacts found at an archaeological site are also frequently used to determine the settlement's age. For example, agricultural implements and pottery discovered at an archaeological site would suggest that the site's remains date from the Neolithic age, which is marked by the development of agriculture and manufacturing of pottery, rather than from the Paleolithic age.
Furthermore, research on Guar Kepah skeletons has revealed that the inhabitants of Guar Kepah are descended from two races: Australo-melanesians and Mongoloids, which are thought to be the first mixed races in Malaysia during the prehistoric period. Guar Kepah shows substantial indications of a permanent settlement with domestic structures, though the growth of communities seemed to have been affected by sea-level fluctuations over time.
Piecing together all the artefacts and remnants found at Guar Kepah, archaeologists have managed to construct an idea of how life was in the area 5,000 years ago, which looked something like this:
Prehistoric humans in Guar Kepah retained the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Paleolithic people who invented stone tools, but they also began to pursue agriculture for sustenance. With agriculture, the Neolithic people had to abandon the nomadic ways of their ancestors and establish more permanent communities. With food production comes surplus, and pottery began to be used to prepare and store food. Aside from agricultural products, the shell middens at Guar Kepah, which stand at about 18 feet tall, also suggest that the community’s diet consisted of a substantial amount of seafood.
Future Plans for the Gallery
The Guar Kepah Archaeological Site is in the process of being listed as a National Heritage Site, and efforts to nominate it to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage List are also underway. In order to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it must fulfil the organisation’s criteria of Outstanding Universal Values and be of common relevance to current and future generations. Due to the site’s historical and archaeological importance, the government is currently in the planning stages of turning it into an archaeo-edu-tourism destination.
In 2021, the federal government, authorised by the Northern Corridor Implementation Authority (NCIA) allocated RM10mil to put up a gallery at the Guar Kepah Archaeological Site,  which is listed as one of the sites in the Archaeo Tourism Link, along with Lenggong Valley in Perak and Lembah Bujang in Kedah.
"The advantage of an on-site gallery is that it displays both the items and the archaeological site, which provides significant benefits in terms of interpretation," Amira says. “It may be more beneficial to the gallery because very few museums or galleries in Malaysia are built on this concept."
Based on this concept, visitors are able to grasp a more comprehensive picture of the actual conditions and better understand how archaeology helped bring out the historical narrative. Besides, running the gallery and maintaining the conservation site concurrently are an added advantage.
Guar Kepah now has visitors every day, be it on weekdays or weekends. In 2020 and 2021, due to Covid-19 SOPs in place which discouraged children under the age of 12 from visiting, there were only an average of 150 visitors per month – significantly less than before the pandemic.
However, as the country steadily recovers and restrictions are lifted, it is expected that the number of tourists will jump.
 Imran Hilmy. RM 10mil for Gallery to House Fossils, The Star, 8th April 2021. https://www.thestar.com.my/metro/metro-news/2021/04/08/rm10mil-for-gallery-to-house-fossils
 Archaeotourism Link. NCER Malaysia. https://www.ncer.com.my/strategic-projects-programmes/tourism/archaeotourism-link/
Lim Sok Swan
is currently focusing on heritage studies. She believes that more understanding among different groups and cultures can make Malaysia a better home for all.