Hunter-Gatherers in Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to the Present


Anatomically modern hunter-gatherers expanded from Africa into Southeast Asia at least 50,000 years ago, where they probably encountered and interacted with populations of Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis and the recently discovered Denisovans. Simulation studies suggest that these hunter-gatherers may well have followed a coastal route that ultimately led to the settlement of Sahul, while archaeology confirms that they also crossed significant seas and explored well into the interior. They also adapted to marked environmental changes that alternated between relatively cool and dry conditions and warmer, wetter interludes. During the former, the sea fell by up to 120 m below its present level, which opened up a vast low-lying area known as Sundaland. Three principal alignments can be identified: the first involved the occupation of rock shelters in upland regions, the second has identified settlement on broad riverine floodplains, and the last concentrated on the raised beaches formed from about five millennia ago when the sea level was elevated above its present position. This cultural sequence was dislocated about 4 kya when rice and millet farmers infiltrated the lowlands of Southeast Asia ultimately from the Yangtze River valley. It is suggested that this led to two forms of interaction. In the first, the indigenous hunter-gatherers integrated with intrusive Neolithic communities and, while losing their cultural identity, contributed their genes to the present population of Southeast Asia. In the second, hunter-gatherers withdrew to rainforest refugia and, through selective pressures inherent in such an environment, survived as the small-bodied, dark-skinned humans found to this day in the Philippines, Peninsular Malaysia and Thailand, and the Andaman Islands. Beyond the impact of expansive rice farmers in Melanesia and Australia, hunter-gatherers continued to dominate until they encountered European settlement.