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Prehistoric Foragers and Farmers in South-east Asia: Renewed Investigations at Niah Cave, Sarawak

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 February 2014

Graeme Barker
Affiliation:
School of Archaeology & Ancient History, University of Leicester, LE1 7RH

Abstract

The paper describes the initial results from renewed investigations at Niah Cave in Sarawak on the island of Borneo, famous for the discovery in 1958 of the c. 40,000–year old ‘Deep Skull’. The archaeological sequences from the West Mouth and the other entrances of the cave complex investigated by Tom and Barbara Harrisson and other researchers have potential implications for three major debates regarding the prehistory of south-east Asia: the timing of initial settlement by anatomically modern humans; the means by which they subsisted in the late Pleistocene and early Holocene; and the timing, nature, and causation of the transition from foraging to farming. The new project is informing on all three debates. The critical importance of the Niah stratigraphies was commonly identified – including by Tom Harrisson himself – as because the site provided a continuous sequence of occupation over the past 40,000 years. The present project indicates that Niah was first used at least 45,000 years ago, and probably earlier; that the subsequent Pleistocene and Holocene occupations were highly variable in intensity and character; and that in some periods, perhaps of significant duration, the caves may have been more or less abandoned. The cultural sequence that is emerging from the new investigations may be more typical of cave use in tropical rainforests in south-east Asia than the Harrisson model.

Résumé

Cette étude décrit les résultats initiaux d'une nouvelle investigation à Niah Cave à Sarawak, sur l'île de Bornéo, célèbre à la suite de la découverte en 1958 de ‘Crâne Profond’, vieux d'environ 40 000 ans. Les séquences archéologiques provenant de West Mouth, et des autres entrées du labyrinthe de grottes exploré par Tom et Barbara Harrisson et d'autres chercheurs, ont peut-être des implications pour trois débats majeurs concernant la préhistoire du sud-est asiatique: la situation dans le temps de l'occupation initiale par des hommes dont l'anatomie est considérée comme moderne, les moyens qui leur ont permis de subsister au pléïstocène supérieur et au début de l'holocène ancien; et la chronologie, la nature et la cause de la transition de la chasse-cueillette à l'agriculture. Ce nouveau projet apporte des informations aux trois débats. Tout le monde – y compris T. Harrisson lui-même – a reconnu l'importance critique des stratigraphies de Niah car le site offrait une séquence d'occupation continue s'étendant sur les 40 000 dernières années. L'étude actuelle indique que Niah avait été utilisé pour la première fois il y a au moins 45 000 ans, et probablement plus tôt; que les occupations qui avaient suivi, au pléïstocène et à l'holocène, offraient d'importantes variations en matière d'intensité et de caractère; et qu'à certaines périodes, peut-être sur une durée significative, il se peut que les grottes aient été plus ou moins abandonnées. La séquence culturelle qui émerge de ces nouvelles investigations est peut-être plus représentative de l'utilisation des grottes dans les forêts tropicales du sud-est de l'Asie que le modèle d'Harrisson.

Resúmen

Esta ponencia describe los resultados iniciales de las nuevas investigaciones en Niah Cave en Sarawak en la isla de Borneo, famosa por el descubrimiento en 1958 de un cráneo de alrededor de 40.000 años de antigüedad conocido como ‘Deep Skull’. Las secuencias arqueológicas procedentes de la 'West Mouth’ y de las otras entradas al complejo de la cueva, investigadas por Tom and Barbara Harrisson y por otros investigadores, tienen posibles implicaciones para tres grandes debates sobre la prehistoria del Asia sudoriental: la cronología para el comienzo de la ocupación de la zona por grupos humanos anatómicamente modernos; los medios por los cuales subsistieron durante el Pleistoceno Final y el pronto Holoceno; y la cronología, naturaleza, y causa de la transición de recolección a agricultura. El nuevo proyecto está produciendo resultados aplicables a los tres debates. La importancia crítica de las estratigrafías de Niah fue comunmente identificada – también por el mismo Tom Harrisson– porque el yacimiento produjo una secuencia de ocupación ininterrumpida sobre los últimos 40.000 años. El proyecto actual indica que Niah fue utilizada por primera vez hace al menos 45.000 años, y probablemente antes; que las subsiguientes ocupaciones durante el Pleistoceno y Holoceno fueron muy diversas en intensidad y naturaleza; y que en algunos periodos, quizá de una considerable duración, las cuevas pudieron haber quedado más o menos abandonadas. La secuencia cultural que está emergiendo de las nuevas investigaciones puede ser más típica del uso de cuevas en zonas de jungla tropical del Asia sudoriental que la del modelo de Harrisson.

Zusammenfassung

Der Beitrag beschreibt die ersten Ergebnisse erneuter Forschungen in der Niah Höhle in Sarawak auf der Insel Borneo, die berühmt ist für die Entdeckung des ca. 40.000 Jahre alten Schädels “Deep Skull” im Jahr 1958. Die archäologische Schichtenfolge vom “West Mouth” und den anderen Eingängen des Höhlenkomplexes, die von Tom und Barbara Harrisson und anderen untersucht wurden, können für drei wichtige Debatten der Vorgeschichtsforschung in Südostasien von Bedeutung sein: die Datierung der ersten Besiedlung durch anatomisch moderne Menschen; ihre Subsistenzmittel im späten Pleistozän und frühen Holozän; und die Datierung und Art sowie die Gründe des Übergangs vom Sammeln zum Ackerbau. Das neue Projekt liefert Beiträge zu allen drei Debatten. Die besondere Bedeutung der Niah-Stratigraphien wurde weithin anerkannt – einschließlich von Tom Harrisson selbst - da die Fundstelle eine kontinuierliche Besiedlungsfolge über die letzten 40.000 Jahre lieferte. Das gegenwärtige Projekt verweist darauf, dass Niah wohl zuerst vor mindestens 45.000 Jahren genutzt wurde, wahrscheinlich sogar früher; dass die nachfolgenden Besiedlungen des Peistozäns und Holozäns von höchst unterschiedlicher Intensität und Art waren; und dass die Höhlen während bestimmter Perioden – von vielleicht größerer Dauer – mehr oder weniger verlassen waren. Die kulturelle Abfolge, die aufgrund der neuen Forschungen aufgestellt werden kann, ist vielleicht eher typisch für die Nutzung von Höhlen in tropischen Regenwäldern in Südostasien als das Harrisson-Modell.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Prehistoric Society 2002

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