Foraging-Farming Transitions at the Niah Caves, Sarawak, Borneo

By Barker, Graeme; Lloyd-Smith, Lindsay et al. | Antiquity, June 2011 | Go to article overview
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Foraging-Farming Transitions at the Niah Caves, Sarawak, Borneo

Barker, Graeme, Lloyd-Smith, Lindsay, Barton, Huw, Cole, Franca, Hunt, Chris, Piper, Philip J., Rabett, Ryan, Paz, Victor, Szabo, Katherine, Antiquity



For more than two decades our present understanding of the prehistory of Island Southeast Asia (Figure 1) has been shaped fundamentally by Peter Bellwoods arguments that the foraging-farming transition can best be explained in terms of a maritime migration of Austronesian-speaking Neolithic farmers (Bellwood 1988, 1990, 1996a & b, 1997, 2004; Diamond & Bellwood 2003). The chronology proposed by linguists such as Blust (1976) and Pawley and Green (1973) for the spread of Austronesian languages appeared to correlate with the emerging radiocarbon chronology for the first appearance of Neolithic material culture in the region: sites with Neolithic pottery dated to c. 6000 BP in the Philippines, in Sulawesi to c. 5000/4500 BP, and in East Timor to c. 4000 BP (Bellwood 1985). Charred remains of domestic rice (Oryza sativd) in sediments, and as inclusions in pottery in the same sediments, at Gua Sireh Cave in Sarawak in northern Borneo were dated to c. 4300 BP (Bellwood et al. 1992), and domestic rice in the Phillipines dated to c. 3300 BP (Snow et al. 1986). In combination, the linguistic and archaeological evidence suggested what Diamond (1988) described as the 'Express Train model of the beginnings of farming: a maritime spread of Austronesian-speaking Neolithic colonists from mainland China and Taiwan to the Philippines, Borneo and Melanesia between about 5000 and 3000 BP, taking pottery, rice cultivation and domestic livestock (pigs, dogs, chickens) with them. These colonists either displaced or absorbed any pre-existing populations of foragers.


At about the same time as Peter Bellwood's initial publications on the 'Express Train thesis, Wilhelm Solheim (1984) proposed a very different model: he suggested that an increasingly maritime-oriented culture would have developed amongst Early and Mid Holocene foraging populations in Island Southeast Asia in the context of the flooding of 'Sundaland', the huge area (the size of Western Europe) that had been exposed by lower sea levels in the Pleistocene in response to glacier growth. Enhanced maritime connections would have led to the development of cultural and linguistic similarities and the exchange of material culture and agricultural resources. He termed his theory the 'Nusantao hypothesis', Nusantao being a term constructed from the Austronesian stem words for 'island' and 'people'.


The present paper reviews the evidence for Early and Mid Holocene settlement in the Niah Caves in Sarawak in the light of these competing 'meta-narrative' theories about the probable course of foraging-farming transitions in the region. The caves consist of a series of enormous interconnected caverns and numerous smaller caves, located in the Gunung Subis massif about 15km inland from the north Borneo coast. Excavations by Tom and Barbara Harrisson in the 1950s and 1960s exposed a long sequence of Pleistocene and Holocene occupation, which they dated from around 40 000 years ago to the present day (T. Harrisson 1957, 1958, 1965, 1970; B. Harrisson 1967). The discoveries in the most intensively investigated entrance, the West Mouth of Niah Great Cave (Figure 2), included 25 human burials dating to the Early Holocene, and over 200 burials with Neolithic material culture, comprising respectively the largest Mesolithic and Neolithic cemeteries in Island Southeast Asia. The Harrisson excavations removed most of the Early and Mid Holocene archaeological deposits in the major cave entrances. A programme of renewed fieldwork in 2000-2003 (the Niah Caves Project or NCP, coordinated by GB), augmented by an extensive programme of re-dating and geomorphological analyses and archival study, has been able to reconstruct the stratigraphy and occupation history of the West Mouth. This has been done through studying the remaining section baulks and exposed sections coupled with targeted excavations (Barker et al, 2007, in press).

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