The Human Use of Caves in Peninsular and Island Southeast Asia: Research Themes

Article excerpt


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. KEYWORDS: burials, caves, rock shelters, cultural landscapes, farming, foraging, humid tropics, Peninsular Southeast Asia, Island Southeast Asia, taphonomy.


ISLAND SOUTHEAST ASIA was the scene of some of the first research-oriented cave investigations in archaeology anywhere in the world. In November 1854, Alfred Russel Wallace landed on the island of Borneo, near the present city of Kuching. While collecting biological specimens, he continued to think about the mechanisms of biological evolution. He identified the importance of the island for investigating evolution in general, the evolution of orangutans and other anthropoid apes in particular, and, it was hoped, the origins of humans (Raby 2001; Wallace 1869). The presentations in 1858 of Darwin's and Wallace's theory of evolution by natural selection, in combination with their interests in the scientific potential of caves in Sarawak, and the enthusiasm generated among leading archaeologists in Britain such as Evans, Boyd Dawkins, Lubbock, and Pitt-Rivers, led to a British expedition to Borneo in the 1870s led by A. Hart Everett. The investigators visited the caves at Bau and Niah in 1873 (Everett et al. 1879-1880; Sherratt 2002), but the expedition failed in its search for early human remains. Greater success was eventually achieved by Eugene Dubois, who arrived in Sumatra in December 1887 (Shipman 2001). In his spare time from his medical duties, he likewise searched caves in dense forest for the remains of ancient human fossils. Finding only a few primate remains that he regarded as fairly recent in age, he arranged for himself to be transferred to Java in 1890 in order to examine the site at Wadjack, at which an ancient human skull was found in 1888. Investigations by his team of engineers and forced laborers on the banks of the nearby Solo River, during and after 1890, famously found ancient human remains--Java Man (Pithecanthropus erectus; now Homo erectus). The recognition of the region as a key location for understanding human evolution was symbolized in 1994 with UNESCO's recognition of Sangiran as a World Heritage Site.

By the early decades of the twentieth century, cave investigations in many parts of Southeast Asia were beginning to yield stone tools, pottery, human and animal remains, and metalwork, but the apparently "straightforward" stratified and deep sequences reported at that time from parts of western Europe were thought to be generally absent, the cave infill deposits often being regarded by Western archaeologists as shallow and frequently disturbed (Anderson 1997). The application of artifact typologies based on the concept of type fossils further limited the perceived value of the lithic assemblages recovered from the caves (Reynolds 1993). Observed problems of bioturbation, reworking, guano digging, human burial and rituals, and political unrest and warfare often combined to promote a minimalist view of the cave archaeology of the region. …