This paper introduces the essays in this volume. The challenging complexities of site
formation and cave taphonomy in humid tropical environments are emphasized, as
is the need for more sophisticated understanding of the geomorphological, biological,
and taphonomic processes that affect tropical caves if archaeological remains
within them are to be better understood. As the case studies in this collection illustrate,
however, tropical cave excavations in peninsular and island Southeast Asia
continue to provide new information that is shaping the agenda of discussions about
the pathways of colonization of Pleistocene and Holocene human populations, their
lifeways as foragers and farmers, and their belief systems as represented by their
burials and cave art. The papers also emphasize the complexity of cave use in this
region through time and space, but perhaps the most important argument of the
volume is that the human use of caves here, past and present, can be understood
only as integral components of wider cultural landscapes.
rock shelters, cultural landscapes, farming, foraging, humid tropics, Peninsular
Southeast Asia, Island Southeast Asia, taphonomy.
Results from Niah Cave Research
Gilbertson, D. D.
McLaren, Sue J.
Banda, Richard Mani.
Past Human Activity and Geomorphological Change in a Guano-Rich Tropical Cave Mouth: Initial Interpretations of the Late Quaternary Succession in the Great Cave of Niah, Sarawak [Access article in PDF] Subject Headings:
Caves -- Malaysia -- Sarawak.
Prehistoric peoples -- Malaysia -- Sarawak.
Geology, Stratigraphic -- Quaternary.
This paper presents initial interpretations of the processes and events responsible for
the late Quaternary sequence in the West Mouth of the Great Cave of Niah, in the
hot and humid lowland rainforest and swamp forest of Sarawak in Malaysian
Borneo. It evaluates the geomorphological context of the site within the known
pattern of rapid late Quaternary climate change. Attention is given to the proximity
to the sea and the likelihood of humid tropical or cooler drier conditions. The stratigraphic
succession is described and four units or lithofacies (2C, 2, 3 and 4) are
recognized as being of particular geomorphological and archaeological importance.
The key processes operating within the site are the accumulation and subsequent
failure and flow of bat and bird guano, hillslope colluviation, and ephemeral stream
flow and pond development. Units 2C and 2 contain the critical archaeology,
including the Deep Skull from an anatomically modern human, discovered by Tom
Harrisson. These were formed by colluviation from a complex cave-mouth rampart
and stream flow from within the cave. The stream transported fine-grained sediment
to a shallow pond, and both the stream and pond deposits show evidence for
prolonged desiccation. Human activity is associated with these surfaces. The human
remains and related archaeology are preserved because a mudflow (Unit 3) plowed
into and overrode the land surface upon which the humans had lived, resulting in
the deformation and burial of the surface and the preservation of the archaeological
material. Provisional radiocarbon dates indicate that Units 2C and 2 accumulated
from before ca. 45,000 B.P. until ca. 38,000 B.P. Dates bracketing the Deep Skull
give this an age of ca. 45,000 B.P. to ca. 43,000 B.P. Overlying the mudflow, Unit
4, a silty diamicton with a relatively high carbonate and organic content, appears to
have formed by a mix of natural colluvial and human transport processes, and is
associated with human cultural material. Unpublished radiocarbon dates indicate
that this deposit formed from before ca. 19,500 B.P. to ca. 8500 B.P. (uncalibrated).
This interpretation of the site and its finds has required detailed reconstruction of
the changing palaeogeography within and beyond the cave entrance and the nature
and rate of geomorphological processes operating within the region, which have
been placed within models for rapid Quaternary environmental change. The results
suggest that during the earlier period of human presence in the Great Cave of Niah(earlier than ca. 45,000 B.P. until ca. 38,000 B.P.), the climate was episodically wet
with much longer periods of relative dryness. During the later period of human
occupancy (ca. 19,500 B.P. to ca. 8500 B.P. [uncalibrated]), the evidence is less
secure and a slightly moister climate is suggested.
ancient humans, bioturbation,
Borneo, cave, climatic change, coastal change, geoarchaeology, geomorphology,
guano, Niah, rainforest, Sarawak, site formation processes, Sunda,
Gilbertson, D. D.
Canti, Matthew G.
Micromorphology of Cave Sediments in the Humid Tropics: Niah Cave, Sarawak [Access article in PDF] Subject Headings:
Caves -- Malaysia -- Sarawak.
Sedimentation and deposition -- Malaysia -- Sarawak.
Human remains (Archaeology) -- Malaysia -- Sarawak.
This is the first detailed study of the micromorphology of archaeologically important
cave sediments in the Great Cave of Niah, in the humid tropics of Sarawak,
Borneo. Micromorphology is used to describe the sediments and post-depositional
alteration, reconstruct the palaeoenvironments, and refine the environmental history
of late Pleistocene deposits associated with the human remains (the so-called Deep Skull dated to ca. 43,000-42,000 B.P.). Micromorphology provides details of the
shape, roundedness, arrangement, and chemistry of grains, aggregates, precipitates,
and sedimentary structures that make up the cave sediments. The dominant processes
in the West Mouth of the Great Cave of Niah are guano sedimentation,
fluvial and shallow pond deposition interrupted by desiccation, mass movement,
and chemical weathering. Also important is post-depositional alteration by bioturbation,
mineral translocation and reprecipitation, and diagenesis. Micromorphology
also provides evidence for short periods of soil development, burnt surfaces, and
deposition of small fragments of bone within the sediment. Together this information
indicates the fine details of the environment occupied by humans, the scale
and effects of the mass movement processes that deformed the beds in which the
human remains are preserved, and the taphonomic processes that reworked and
redistributed archaeological material within this part of the cave.
cave sediments, human remains, Niah Cave, Borneo, humid tropics.
The Case for Rainforest Foragers: The Starch Record at Niah Cave, Sarawak [Access article in PDF] Subject Headings:
Forage plants -- Malaysia -- Sarawak.
Geology, Stratigraphic -- Holocene.
Agriculture, Prehistoric -- Malaysia -- Sarawak.
Paleolithic period -- Asia, Southeastern.
A study of preserved starch grains from sedimentary sequences at Niah Cave, Sarawak,
Borneo, reveals direct evidence for the use of rainforest plants rich in digestible
carbohydrates. Plants identified include several species of Aroids (Alocasia sp., Cyrtosperma
sp.), at least one species of yam (Dioscorea sp.), and the pith of sago palm (cf.
Caryota mitis, Eugeissona utilis). Starch grains from a total of fourteen recurring types
indicate that a wide range of starch-rich plants are present in Pleistocene occupation
sediments from the cave, and await identification with a more comprehensive
reference collection of tropical species. The technique of starch extraction from
archaeological sediments presents archaeologists with a new and powerful tool for
investigating the past diet of tropical forest hunter-gatherers.
Reconstructing Human Subsistence in the West Mouth (Niah Cave, Sarawak) Burial Series Using Stable Isotopes of Carbon [Access article in PDF] Subject Headings:
Prehistoric peoples -- Malaysia -- Sarawak.
Sarawak -- Antiquities.
The human burial series from the West Mouth of Niah Cave (Sarawak) offers a
unique opportunity to explore prehistoric subsistence patterns in lowland tropical
rainforest. Over 200 primary and secondary burials, classified as pre-Neolithic and Neolithic, have been recovered since preliminary excavations began there a
half-century ago. Stable isotope ratios of carbon (13C/12C, reported as δ13C values)
derived from human tooth enamel provide a quantitative measure of individual food
consumption during the time of enamel formation. Such data provide a robust and
independent assessment of total diet that complements other subsistence information
recovered from the archaeological record. West Mouth human tooth enamel examined
shows a broad range of δ13C values ( 15.70 to 11.30), consistent with a
C3-based subsistence regime as would be expected in rainforest habitats dominated
by C3 vegetation. Pre-Neolithic individuals have more negative δ13C values on average
(N = 15, X = -14.3%) than Neolithic individuals sampled (N = 28,
X = -13.1%). This isotopic shift is statistically significant and suggests a fundamental
change in human subsistence between the late Pleistocene/early Holocene and
later Holocene inhabitants at Niah. Pre-Neolithic δ13C values suggest broad spectrum
rainforest foraging, whereas less negative Neolithic δ13C values, on average,
suggest a more coordinated regime of food production and/or collection. Studies
of δ13C variation in rainforest habitats contribute to this interpretation, particularly
with respect to the "canopy effect," whereby closed-canopy foraging predicts more
negative δ13C values, while food resources consumed by exploiting more open settings
(such as fields, gaps, and swamps) predict less negative δ13C values. These data
have important implications for interpreting the nature of human subsistence in a
rainforest setting prior to and after the potential adoption of agriculture by the inhabitants
represented in the West Mouth burial series.
Prehistoric peoples -- Food -- Malaysia -- Sarawak.
Hunting, Prehistoric -- Malaysia -- Sarawak.
Agriculture, Prehistoric -- Malaysia -- Sarawak.
This paper reports on the principal archaeological results of a renewed program of
fieldwork in the Niah Caves (Sarawak) by an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists
and environmental scientists. The paper focuses on two main themes: (1) the evidence
for the changing nature of the human use of the cave and the implications of
this evidence for wider debates in Southeast Asia regarding the foraging behaviors of
the modern human populations who colonized the region in the later Pleistocene,
and (2) the character of the later transition from foraging to farming. The first
foragers visiting the caves ca. 45,000 years ago encountered much more varied
landscapes than the present-day equatorial evergreen rainforest around Niah,
though they were ones in which rainforest probably remained a component. A remarkable
array of organic evidence indicates that the Pleistocene foragers using the
caves exploited such landscapes with a combination of hunting, fishing, mollusk
collection, and plant gathering, the latter including tuberous forest plants such as
aroids, taro, yam, and sago palm. In the mid Holocene, when the landscape surrounding
the cave was more similar to that of today, the primary use of the caves
was for burials: the West Mouth of the Great Cave in particular was the location
for an elaborate Neolithic cemetery that was characterized by a considerable degree
of formal planning through its ca. 2500-year life. However, Neolithic people may
also have used the West Mouth for habitation, as they certainly used other entrances
of the cave complex. Based on present evidence, their subsistence base appears to
have been forest foraging, though they were in contact with rice farmers. The
remarkable antiquity and longevity of rainforest foraging knowledge and technologies
at Niah appear to be among the most important conclusions emerging from the
project, findings that may provide further support for arguments against the foragerfarmer
dichotomy that underpins the currently dominant model of agricultural origins
in Southeast Asia.
This paper presents the state of archaeobotanical research at rock shelters and cave
sites in Island Southeast Asia and its potential for enhancing our knowledge of the
region's prehistory. It takes stock of what has been done, what is being done, and
the prospects for archaeobtanical research in the region. This paper argues that the
knowledge we generate from archaeobotany, in tandem with other methodologies,
can lead to a better understanding of past subsistence strategies in the region. It also
takes the view that knowledge derived from analyzing cave deposits is better utilized
when seen in relation to the wider human landscape, at whatever scale a study takes.
archaeobotany, rock shelters and caves, Island Southeast Asia.
This paper explores variability in cave use in central Maluku from initial settlement
in the late Pleistocene to the ethnographic present. Significant variability exists. Historic and ethnographic accounts highlight cave use that is not often considered by
archaeologists. Some uses may leave few archaeological signatures. Factors affecting
different cave uses are examined, including environmental, social/cultural, and historical
factors. The effects of immigrant population influences, such as the Austronesian
immigration into and/or influence on central Maluku, are also important considerations.
The possibility of multiple migrations of pre-Austronesians and various
Austronesian groups, and the subsequent effects on cave use, are also discussed. Archaeological
case studies include the Labarisi site (north Buru), the Hatusua site
(southwest Seram), and several cave sites on the northern Leihitu Peninsula
central Maluku, pre-Austronesian, Austronesian.
Anderson, Douglas D.
The Use of Caves in Peninsular Thailand in the Late Pleistocene and Early and Middle Holocene [Access article in PDF] Subject Headings:
Caves -- Thailand.
Human remains (Archaeology) -- Thailand.
Paleolithic period -- Thailand.
Geology, Stratigraphic -- Pleistocene.
Geology, Stratigraphic -- Holocene.
Caves in peninsular Thailand have a complex history of human use ranging from
brief campsites to long-term occupation and from locations of industrial activity to
landscapes inhabited by spirit forces. In late Pleistocene times, dating from before
than 40,000 B.P. to about 11,000 B.P., caves were used only sporadically as temporary
campsites, where people built fires, fashioned tools, and consumed the meals of
animal (and presumably plant) products. During early Holocene times, dating from
before 11,000 B.P. to about 6500 B.P., many caves were occupied for sufficient duration
to have built up sizable midden deposits, occasionally over 1 m thick. Some of
these deposits also include burials, usually of single randomly placed individuals with
few, if any, grave goods. During mid Holocene times, ca. 6500-3500 B.P., some
caves were used as burial grounds, with little if any trace of occupation, whereas
others were scenes of domestic activity. Mid Holocene and recent times also saw
the use of cave walls as media for paintings, with depictions, often crude, of whole
or parts of human figures, fish, birds, and land animals.
Southeast Asia, late Pleistocene, early Holocene, mid Holocene, caves.
Rabett, Ryan J.
The Early Exploitation of Southeast Asian Mangroves: Bone Technology from Caves and Open Sites [Access article in PDF] Subject Headings:
Hunting, Prehistoric -- Asia, Southeastern.
Bone implements, Prehistoric -- Asia, Southeastern.
Asia, Southeastern -- Antiquities.
This paper focuses on the contribution that the study of bone technology is making
to the understanding of early tropical subsistence in Southeast Asia. Newly completed
research suggests that during the period from the terminal Pleistocene to mid
Holocene, bone tools may have featured prominently in coastal subsistence. There
are indications that this technology may have had a particular association with hunting
and gathering in the mangrove forests that proliferated along many coasts during
this period. The study of these tools thus represents a rare chance to examine prehistoric
extractive technologies, which are generally agreed to have been predominantly
made on organic, nonpreserving media. The evidence presented also suggests
that prehistoric foragers from this region possessed a good working understanding of
the mechanical properties of bone and used bone implements where conditions and
needs suited the parameters of this material.
bone technology, Sundaland,
Veth, Peter Marius.
Continuity in Tropical Cave Use: Examples from East Timor and the Aru Islands, Maluku [Access article in PDF] Subject Headings:
Caves -- East Timor.
Caves -- Indonesia -- Aru Islands.
Human settlements -- East Timor.
Human settlements -- Indonesia -- Aru Islands.
The Aru Islands and East Timor fall within the biogeographic region known
as Wallacea and have lain within the tropics for the known history of human occupation.
Recent research has identified archaeological sequences that parallel
the older radiocarbon chronologies from Australia. Terminal Pleistocene huntergatherer
assemblages recovered from at least six caves register the introduction of a
Neolithic technocomplex after ca. 4000 B.P. in the form of pottery, domesticates,
ovens, the industrial use of shell, and some endemic extinctions. However, there
are also intriguing uniformities in the cultural assemblages: in the suites of artifacts
discarded and assumed supply zones for those artifacts, in the economic faunal suites,
and in the apparent level of intensity of occupation of the different sites. We concur
with and extend the argument made by Glover (1986) that there was no substantial
change in the nature of cave use in East Timor despite the possible subsistence
changes that might have taken place. Their remarkable continuities reflect their similar
placement within larger regional land-use systems through time: they represent
diverse components of a larger domestic and totemic landscape, which appears to
continue to this day. The scale of territoriality, degree of mobility, and extent
of trade and exchange of groups must all be considered if the placement of caves
within cultural landscapes is to be understood.
Southeast Asia, cave use,
Pleistocene, Holocene, cultural landscapes, Aru Islands, East Timor.
Pannell, Sandra N.
Toward a Cultural Topography of Cave Use in East Timor: A Preliminary Study [Access article in PDF] Subject Headings:
Caves -- East Timor.
Caves -- Indonesia -- Aru Islands.
Land settlement patterns, Prehistoric -- East Timor.
Land settlement patterns, Prehistoric -- Indonesia -- Aru Islands.
In his seminal work on the archaeology of East Timor, Ian Glover (1986) notes that
there appeared to be little archaeological evidence for change in the nature of cave
use as a focus for settlement, despite the subsistence changes that occurred with the
transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Looking to the ethnographic
record for hunter-gatherer groups, he found little evidence to support the expectation
that caves served as "permanent home bases" and commented that "at a time
when stable village settlements existed in Timor it is inevitable that the caves provide
an even more biased sample of the total Timorese way of life . . ." (1986 : 206).
In this paper we revisit the issue of contemporary cave occupation in East Timor
with the purpose of providing a more detailed ethnographic discussion of the caves'
various uses and meanings. These encompass both the sorts of secular uses described
by Glover as well as the social status of caves as sacred or in other ways significant
natural formations in the cultural topography of local and national landscapes. The
implications some of these observations on contemporary cave use hold for the interpretation
of the archaeological record are briefly explored. We also review the
sparse literature on contemporary cave use for tropical and tropical semi-arid regions
and conclude that the notions of "permanent home cases" and "stable village settlements"
are probably not very meaningful, either in contemporary horticultural
or past hunter-gatherer contexts.
contemporary cave use, East Timor,
ethnoarchaeology, Island Southeast Asia.
Leavesley, Matthew G.
Prehistoric Hunting Strategies in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea: The Evidence of the Cuscus (Phalanger orientalis) Remains from Buang Merabak Cave [Access article in PDF] Subject Headings:
Hunting, Prehistoric -- Papua New Guinea -- New Ireland Island.
Phalangeridae -- Papua New Guinea -- New Ireland Island.
New Ireland Island (Papua New Guinea) -- Antiquities.
The cuscus, Phalanger orientalis, was probably the most important food source in
New Ireland from its introduction 20,000 years ago until the introduction of the pig, Sus scrofa, 3500 years ago. Terrestrial, or land-based, fauna were an essential part
of the prehistoric diet because they provided both protein and fat, which were often
difficult to obtain from marine resources alone. P. orientalis was an important prey
species because New Ireland had a relatively low range of prey taxa. Prior to
20,000 B.P., the New Ireland fauna were relatively meager: the potential terrestrial
prey taxa for prehistoric hunters included bats, rats, birds, and reptiles. The introduction
of the cuscus dramatically increased the number of individual animals and
therefore expanded the island-based protein resource available to prehistoric hunters.
This paper investigates the nature of the late Pleistocene to Holocene capture
of P. orientalis based on data from Buang Merabak, a central New Ireland cave site,
and investigates whether prehistoric hunters captured P. orientalis of a particular age
and how this changed over time.
Pleistocene, hunting strategies, Phalanger
orientalis, cuscus, New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea.
Rites and ceremonies, Prehistoric -- Indonesia -- Kalimantan Timur.
Dwellings, Prehistoric -- Indonesia -- Kalimantan Timur.
Kalimantan Timur (Indonesia) -- Antiquities.
This paper presents a brief summary of a program of study of the archaeology of
caves and rock shelters in East Kalimantan, especially the results of recent fieldwork
along the Marang River. The caves and rock shelters cluster into three groups in
terms of their elevations in the karstic landscape and their archaeological remains.
The highest and most inaccessible caves are the locations of rock paintings. Caves at
middle locations have produced evidence for funerary activity. Large, dry rock shelters,
mostly flat-bottomed, at the foot of the cliffs were preferred for habitation. The
paintings consist especially of hand stencils but also include anthropomorphic and
zoomorphic figures as well as other motifs. A stalactite date indicates that the earliest
hand stencils may predate ca. 10,000 B.P., and drawings of what may be extinct animals
suggest that some of the other motifs could be of such antiquity. The funerary
material includes both pottery similar to Neolithic material elsewhere in Borneo and
also later material associated with bronze artifacts. Some of the habitation sites
may be pre-Neolithic on the evidence of multiple AMS dates between 4000 and
11750 B.P.; others are more recent. A particular focus of further research will need
to be an attempt to establish the antiquity and the authorship of the rock art, and its
relationship, if any, to the Holocene uses of the caves for burials and habitation.
Kalimantan, Borneo, rock art, cave burial, cave habitation.
Patterns of Habitation and Burial Activity in the Ban Rai Rock Shelter, Northwestern Thailand [Access article in PDF] Subject Headings:
Rites and ceremonies, Prehistoric -- Thailand.
Dwellings, Prehistoric -- Thailand.
Thailand -- Antiquities.
The excavation of Ban Rai rock shelter (Pang Mapha district, Mae Hong Son
Province, northwestern Thailand) has uncovered evidence relating to changing
patterns of prehistoric human activity. Analyses of the excavation data, along with
radiocarbon dating, have enabled the identification of two separate cultural components.
The earlier component, the pre-Log Coffin culture, is dated by 14C to between
ca. 12,500 and 8000 B.P. and is characterized by a wide range of lithics, an
abundance of faunal remains, and a primary flexed burial. The second component,
the Log Coffin culture, probably dates to ca. 2100-1200 B.P. and yielded human remains,
potsherds, and iron tools, in addition to the log coffins themselves and their
supporting posts. The composition of the artifact assemblages provided the main basis
for the separation of the components, which has highlighted the changing use of
the Ban Rai rock shelter from a primarily habitation to an exclusively burial site.
Ban Rai, Log Coffin culture, lithics, Hoabinhian, flexed burial.