- The Spice Islands in Prehistory: Archaeology in the Northern Moluccas, Indonesia ed. by Peter Bellwood
The northern Moluccan islands of Wallacea comprise Halmahera, Morotai, and Obi, along with almost 400 smaller but politically important islands such Ternate, Tidore, and Gebe. In the past, these islands formed a crucial linkage, articulating the large continental islands of the Sunda Shelf with those of the western Pacific, which may have facilitated innovations in early seafaring, as well as the transfer of ideas and the translocation of material culture, plant foods, and animals from the Late Pleistocene through to the Late Holocene. Recently, efforts to model the initial Pleistocene colonisation of Oceania have reinvigorated debate concerning whether humans followed a northerly route via the northern Moluccas and Waigeo or a more southerly route through Misool, Aru, or Timor (Kealy et al. 2018; Norman et al. 2018). Moreover, the extent to which Late Holocene Austronesian-speaking groups in the Moluccas derived from the Philippines and Taiwan, and contributed to Lapita populations in the Bismarck Archipelago, remains unresolved (Carson et al. 2013). These questions have been perennial in Indo-Pacific archaeology and much of the remaining conjecture stems from a lack of archaeological evidence from the northeastern part of Wallacea.
Bellwood's edited monograph on The Spice Islands in Prehistory goes a long way towards resolving this lack of evidence. The volume thoroughly describes the results of three decades of archaeological enquiry focussing on the northern Moluccan islands, including Halmahera, Morotai, Gebe, and Koyoa. This research began with pioneering surveys and excavations undertaken by a collaborative Australasian-Indonesian team in the early 1990s, followed by years of specialist artifactual and faunal analyses. At the time of fieldwork, the research connected two regions of study that had already been masterfully synthesised in Man's Conquest of the Pacific (Bellwood 1978) and The Prehistory of the Indo-Malayan Archipelago (Bellwood 1985). Although provisional dates, material evidence, and regional interpretations have been published previously in various interim reports, review chapters, and archaeological science papers, this new volume ties together multiple lines of evidence for the first time and presents a holistic reconstruction of culture history in the northern Moluccas.
The monograph is broadly divided into two halves, with the history of research and excavation reports featured in chapters 1 through 6, and material analyses and interpretations featured in chapters 7 through 13. In chapter 1, Bellwood outlines the historical development of the research project. Of particular use is a bibliography of all previously published journal articles and completed theses, appended with a table compiling all radiometric dates obtained from the study area. The following excavation chapters are presented geographically but require a relatively close reading to make sense of the analysis chapters that follow, especially in contexts where the dates or material associations remain speculative. Some details, for instance regarding the timing of ceramics first entering the record, are difficult to assess and Bellwood remains appropriately conservative in acknowledging the impact of vertical displacement in some sites.
In chapter 2, Bellwood and colleagues present the Gebe Island excavations, including classic Pleistocene sites such as the Golo and Wetef caves, along with Um Kapat Papo, Kaitutsi, and the Buwawansi complex dating to the Holocene. Gebe itself contributes greatly to our understanding of how early seafaring populations were able to push the boundaries of available resources, inhabiting even tiny equatorial islands with a [End Page 216] depauperate terrestrial fauna, supporting recent evidence from Kisar (O'Connor et al. 2019) and Talaud (Ono et al. 2015). Minor alterations to stratigraphic interpretation and the association between some features, such as the grave cut from Golo, are not always made explicit but indicate that this edited volume should be consulted preferentially for the excavators' most up-to-date interpretations.
Excavations on Morotai Island are the subject of chapter 3, in which Bellwood, Tanudirjo, and Nitihaminoto substantially clarify the site chronology at Tanjung Pinang, arguing for natural...