Continuity in Tropical Cave Use: Examples from East Timor and the Aru Islands, Maluku

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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 hunter-gatherer 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. KEYWORDS: Southeast Asia, cave use, Pleistocene, Holocene, cultural landscapes, Aru Islands, East Timor.


IN THIS PAPER WE EXAMINE the evidence for long-term cave use from the Aru Islands located in Maluku province of eastern Indonesia and from East Timor. Both study areas are located within the low-latitude tropical zone north of Australia and represent likely early stepping-stones for anatomically modern humans colonizing the continent of Sahul (Fig. 1). Excavations by the authors between 2000 and 2002 in East Timor at the cave sites of Lene Hara, Matja Kuru 1 and 2, and Telupunu, and in the Aru Islands at the cave sites of Liang Lemdubu and Nabulei Lisa in 1996 and 1997, have provided rich occupation sequences spanning the last 30,000 years (O'Connor et al. 2002a, 2002b; Spriggs et al. 1998, 2003; Veth et al. 1998a, 1998b). All of these caves are now located within secondary growth forest, but we know from detailed faunal analysis of the Aru sites and from general climatic data that the boundaries and nature of these forests and the distance of some sites from the sea have changed significantly through time (cf. O'Connor et al. 2002a:302). Despite this, we suggest that these caves demonstrate a continuity of use through time. Reviews of cave archaeology in tropical Southeast Asia often stress the homogeneity, protein paucity, and impenetrable nature of rainforests, conveying a sense of the caves' centrality and isolation from other habitation sites in the landscape (Bailey et al. 1989; Bailey and Headland 1991). We challenge this portrayal, arguing that the cave sites we have studied formed locations within much larger cultural landscapes.



In East Timor, Ian Glover carried out an extensive test-pitting and excavation program in the Baucau, Venilale, Laga, and Baguia regions in 1966-1967 (Glover 1969, 1986). The oldest dated site was a small deep cave/fissure named Uai Bobo 2 in the interior, from which he obtained an age of ca. 13,400 B.P. A range of other cave sites both in the interior and near the coast returned a range of dates all in the Holocene period. As noted by Pannell and O'Connor (this volume), Glover argued that these caves were not representative of general settlement and subsistence patterns and were likely to be skewed toward specialized kinds of activities. During our background review of his excavation data, however, it became clear that some of the cave sequences, such as Bui Ceri Uato, located adjacent to a permanent spring near the coast, shared many of the characteristics one might expect of a generalized habitation site, with intensive occupation continuing both before and during the Neolithic phases of its occupation (Table 1). …