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  • First Islanders: Prehistory and Human Migration in Island Southeast Asia by Peter Bellwood
  • Charles Higham
First Islanders: Prehistory and Human Migration in Island Southeast Asia. Peter Bellwood. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell, 2017. 384 pp., 63 figures, 17 plates, bibliographies, index. Hardcover US $95, ISBN 9781119251545; Paperback US $45, ISBN 9781119251552; E-book US $36, ISBN 9781119251583.

This is the third iteration of Peter Bellwood's synthesis of the prehistory of Island Southeast Asia. The first was published in 1985 as The Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago, the second in 1997 with the same title. The pace of research over the past two decades has, in the words of the author, required a major reassessment of the prehistory and early history of this region that stretches from Taiwan to Timor and Sumatra to Seram. Ten particular topics have driven the new appraisal, of which the foremost is the weight of new discoveries. Who could have imagined in 1985 that an entirely new human species would be discovered at Liang Bua on Flores or that the genes of a second new species identified at Denisova in Siberia are represented in modern Melanesia? Advances have also been made on the vital chronological frameworks into which to weave the pattern of cultural changes and migratory movements. This is particularly relevant for the arrival of Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) and the long process of rice and millet domestication and the beginning of metallurgy, the last two of which require dovetailing island and mainland evidence. Bellwood also stresses the phenomenal advances over the last decade in genetics that have provided insights into prehistory unimaginable when he began his career in New Zealand half a century ago.

These and several other advances in, for example, linguistics and bioanthropology in its many subdisciplines are now straining the ability of any single author to distil with authority. It is therefore an innovative and sensible move on the part of Peter Bellwood to invite twelve colleagues to contribute a section on their specialized fields.

Covering over a million years of human settlement, the initial chapter on the environment describes the sequence of climatic changes that so altered the physical geography. The sequence of cold and warm phases in higher latitudes were matched in island Southeast Asia by changes in rainfall, temperature, vegetation, and above all, the rise and fall of the sea that induced a continental land mass during cool phases and islands as warmth returned and the sea rose. Understanding environmental change is the prerequisite to the following seven chapters, which begin with the first hominin settlement and end with the development of the early historic maritime exchange that linked the region with points east and west.

The debate on the dating of Homo erectus in Southeast Asia shows no signs of being settled, and Bellwood sensibly refrains from pinpointing their arrival more precisely than within a 600,000 year span beginning 1.8 million years ago. However, he does tend to favour an earlier context given the dating of hominins in the South Caucasus and the likelihood that grassland corridors punctured the rainforests of Sundaland during cool climatic conditions. His summary of the new dates for Homo floresiensis also underwrite the title of the book, First Islanders, for presumably these [End Page 202] ancestral "hobbits," whoever they were, could cross by sea into Flores perhaps a million years ago.

The following chapter moves on to consider the biology and languages of the modern populations and the insights they provide into the more recent prehistoric past. The range extends from hunter gatherers to complex urban societies, from people with dark to lighter skin pigmentation, and a mixture of language families and cranial shapes. With specialist contributions on cranial morphology and molecular anthropology, a pattern emerges that identifies a basal hunter gatherer or Australo-Papuan population and incoming Neolithic farmers who brought Austronesian languages. Much of this population history is coming into focus as a result of the multivariate cranial analysis led by Hiro Matsumura (chapter 4); correlation coefficients form sharply different prehistoric groups that clearly set these two groups apart.

Bellwood then presents a masterly summary of the first of these, the AMHs who arrived from their...