Progress in optical dating of guano-rich sediments associated with the Deep Skull, West Mouth of the Great Cave of Niah, Sarawak, Borneo
The West Mouth of the Great Cave of Niah is one of the major archaeological sites in Southeast Asia; the radiocarbon chronology of this site currently places the earliest presence of Homo sapiens (a Deep Skull find) in Southeast Asia at about 45 ka BP. An optical dating programme using sand-sized quartz was initiated in the West Mouth to complement the radiocarbon chronology. This paper reports on the progress in dating a key sample (sample 376r) that was taken from deposits containing the Deep Skull. A somewhat novel procedure was developed to separate and clean quartz grains from the unusual guano-rich deposits. From this, only a small quantity of quartz grains could be recovered and 36 aliquots (1 mm in diameter) were prepared, each consisting of ∼80 grains. This sample was dated by means of the single-aliquot regenerative-dose (SAR) method using the protocols of Murray and Wintle [2000. Luminescence dating of quartz using an improved single-aliquot regenerative-dose protocol. Radiation Measurements 32, 57–73], and of Choi et al. [2003. Luminescence dating of well-sorted marine terrace sediments on the southeastern coast of Korea. Quaternary Science Reviews 22, 407–421]. The results showed a wide distribution of equivalent doses; this distribution is inferred to be due to bioturbation, variable bleaching at deposition, and to local variations in the dose rate within the sample site. Dose rates were measured using both field (in-situ γ-ray spectrometry, IGRS) and laboratory (inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry/atomic emission spectrometry, ICP-MS/AES; and isotope dilution, ID) methods. There was significant disagreement between the concentrations of radioisotopes found using laboratory and field measurements, indicating sediment heterogeneity and also possible disequilibrium in the 238U decay chain. Future work in the West Mouth should therefore concentrate on taking sediment samples of at least 500–600 cm3, improving the dose rate estimates (e.g. by high-resolution γ-ray spectrometry) and investigating other luminescence signals (e.g. red thermoluminescence) as potential geochronometers.