Rock Shelters, Caves, and Archaeobotany in Island Southeast Asia

By Paz, Victor | Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Rock Shelters, Caves, and Archaeobotany in Island Southeast Asia


Paz, Victor, Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific


ABSTRACT

This paper presents the state of archaeobotanical research at rock shelters and cave sites in Island Southeast Asia and its potential for enhancing our knowledge of the region's prehistory. It takes stock of what has been done, what is being done, and the prospects for archaeobtanical research in the region. This paper argues that the knowledge we generate from archaeobotany, in tandem with other methodologies, can lead to a better understanding of past subsistence strategies in the region. It also takes the view that knowledge derived from analyzing cave deposits is better utilized when seen in relation to the wider human landscape, at whatever scale a study takes. KEYWORDS: archaeobotany, rock shelters and caves, Island Southeast Asia.

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CAVES AND ROCK SHELTERS are the dominant site types in Island Southeast Asia. Ever since the pioneering times of archaeological practice in the region, archaeologists have commonly assumed that these were the best sites to start with in the search for very old archaeological deposits. There is also the issue of accessibility: caves and rock shelters in the region usually offer a deeper chronology for less matrix depth than open sites. At most sites of this type, alluvial or colluvial deposition are not major factors in the creation of their matrices.

Taphonomic processes also have a more destructive effect on the archaeology found at open sites, making it harder for the archaeologist (and especially the archaeobotanist) to study the remains. Good cave sites in particular have the advantage of being relatively dry, even in the tropics, creating excellent conditions for preservation. This is seen clearly in the preservation of organic materials. In the Niah cave complex in Sarawak, for example, wooden planks and coffins survive exposed on the surface or buried underneath layers of guano in the West Mouth of the Great Cave and in Kain Hitam, the Painted Cave (Barker et al. 2001; Harrisson 1958). Another example is the mummified human remains and coffins in the caves located in Kabayan in the Cordillera mountains of Luzon (Salcedo 1998).

Cave sites can be compared with other cave sites fairly easily. The extent of what constitutes an archaeological site can be defined clearly as the area within the cave or cave platform. The borders of open sites, on the other hand, are usually defined arbitrarily in Island Southeast Asia. The fact that caves and rock shelters have offered the more attractive options for many archaeologists working in the region does not imply that such sites do not have their own set of complications (see Bell and Walker 1992:33-34; Spriggs 1989). With open sites, everyone knows the difficulties almost immediately. With caves and rock shelters, there has sometimes been a degree of naivete when dealing with the intricacies of site formation processes (Barker et al. 2000; Spriggs 1989; and see this volume: Gilbertson et al.). Nevertheless, caves and rock shelters may be treated as effective units of analysis for archaeological studies, especially when the emphasis is on people-landscape or people-plant relationships in the past.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF ARCHAEOBOTANY IN THE REGION

Archaeobotany is the analysis of plant remains from archaeological sites and contexts. An archaeobotanist treats plant remains in their various forms of preservation mainly as artifacts. Only when the sampling is off site and the concern is for paleoenvironmental reconstructions are the plant remains treated as ecofacts. Some examples of the latter approach in Island Southeast Asia are the various off-site palynological studies undertaken by Maloney (1985, 1990) in the island of Sumatra and van der Kaars and Dam (1997) in Java, and more general coverage of the Indonesian archipelago by Dam et al. (2001), research that indirectly addressed questions of human impact on the landscape. Archaeobotanists collect and study plant macro remains such as charred seeds and wood, micro remains such as phytoliths and starches, and molecular remains such as ancient DNA and lipids for the purpose of understanding past human behavior and history, as well as contributing to the construction of a palaeohistorical account of the area. …

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