'Canarium' in the Southeast Asian and Oceanic Archaeobotanical and Pollen Records

Article excerpt


Canarium (Burseraceae) is a genus of c. 100 species, centred on Malaysia, comprising mainly large primary or secondary forest trees growing at low altitudes. There are monographs by Leenhouts (1959a; 1959b) for Malesia (the ever-wet tropics of Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea) and Leenhouts (1955) for the Pacific. Several Canarium species are a valuable source of edible nuts, oil and resin, sometimes timber, but most have soft wood, and are popular wayside trees (TABLE 1). Most are tall, several species have buttresses, the leaves are pennate and the fruits are generally plum-shaped, with stones and a fleshy pericarp, and blue-black when ripe (Leenhouts 1959b). There are three sub-genera: Canarium, Pimella and Canariellum, with the last in east Queensland, New Caledonia and adjacent islands only. There are a plethora of local names, but the only widespread ones are kanari and kendondong in Malesia.

Canarium is cultivated in Melanesia as far as Vanuatu (Gosden 1992) with one species (C. harveyi) even found in Samoa, western Polynesia, [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] where it may be a modern introduction (Whistler 1991). C. baileyanum nuts are used by Australian Aborigines (Yen 1995: 838). Some species seem almost confined to rainforest, but C. hirsutum Willd. ssp. hirsutum occurs infrequently in secondary forest in Malesia and C. sumatranum Boerl. & Koord. is commoner in secondary forest below 500 m in Sumatra. Two of the 15 Sumatran species are found above 1400 m altitude: C. littorale Bl. (rarely up to 2000 m) and C. hirsutum ssp. hirsutum, occasionally found up to 1800 m. Two species have been reported from lowland freshwater swamps in Singapore (Corner 1978).

Fossil archaeological and pollen finds are listed on TABLE 1 and site locations on FIGURE 1. The Seraba, Sepik-Ramu Valley, fruits are large, and they have been labelled by Gosden (1993) as 'domesticated'. Yen (1991: 84) is unsure but suggests (Yen 1995: 843) that the continuity of sequences indicates early domestication. This, and Sri Lankan evidence, indicates that hunter-gatherers were using wild resources of the lowland rainforest as far back as the Late Pleistocene and trees may have been selectively conserved before they were planted. The commonest species present archaeologically in the Lapira homeland area is C. indicum (Yen 1991: 84) but there are four domesticated species in the New Guinea region, and another centred on the western Solomon Islands (Yen 1995: 836). A Canarium-type pollen, closely resembling modern reference material of C. littorale, has been discovered in several Sumatran pollen diagrams.

The archaeobotanical record

No finds of Canarium have been reported from the lower levels of Niah Cave, Sarawak, the Southeast Asian site thought to have been occupied earliest in the Late Pleistocene by Homo sapiens ssp. sapiens (Bellwood 1985), but Deraniyagala (1991: 18) seems to suggest that the nut-bearing C. zeylanicum might have been used by hominids in Sri Lanka from about 34,000 b.p. onward.

The earliest known occupation of Melanesia dates to c. 40,000 b.p. (Groube et al. 1986) and the oldest archaeobotanical record is for a large-fruited form of C. indicum from the Sepik-Ramu area of Papua New Guinea (Yen 1990: 262; Gorecki pers. comm.) said to date to 14,000 b.p. Kajale (1989) found C. zeylanicum endocarps in Sri Lanka dating to 12,500-10,000 b.p. associated with remains of bananas and Spriggs (1993) does not rule out the possibility of Pleistocene agriculture in the Pacific. Gosden (1992: 56) described Canarium with bananas as components of the Melanesian yam-taro complex, which also includes other tree crops, such as sago and breadfruit, not found in Sri Lanka. Charred Canarium fruit stones from Vietnamese Hoabinhian sites have been directly dated c. to 9000-8000 b.p. (Gorsdorf & Viet 1995: figure 3) but remains are present back to the Late Pleistocene at Con Moong Cave [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. …