Across the Indian Ocean: The Prehistoric Movement of Plants and Animals

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The study of prehistory resembles a complex jigsaw and for much of the last half century Peter Bellwood has been at work finding and fitting pieces together, especially as they pertain to the island worlds of the western Pacific. His work has been pre-eminent in generating new understanding and fresh debate about the origins of Austronesian language speakers and the spread of agriculture and languages through Island Southeast Asia and the Pacific (e.g. Bellwood 1987, 1997). Austronesian is the most geographically dispersed of any global language family in pre-modern times and the inclusion of the Malagasy language in it implies that--complementary to the eastward spread of Austronesian into the Pacific--a westward extension of Austronesian speaking seafarers was involved in the peopling of Madagascar.

In this paper we explore the wider Indian Ocean context of this western Austronesian expansion and highlight how current research, including our Sealinks project (see Acknowledgements), is helping to reveal processes of cultural contact, trade and biological translocations in the Indian Ocean in later prehistory, from what can be termed the Bronze Age (in western Asian chronologies) through to the Iron Age and later. This research is inherently interdisciplinary, and thus follows in the footsteps of Peter Bellwood's pioneering archaeology of island cultures.

We also draw upon another strand of Bellwood's work, namely his focus on small-scale societies as major forces of cultural history. The actors in the drama of Austronesian and Polynesian origins, who created new worlds in Island Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and seafaring technologies of unparalleled sophistication, were not the river valley civilisations or literate cities that so often capture the archaeological imagination, and dominate the public image of archaeology. Instead, it was small-scale, village or lineage groups of farmers and seafarers who played the key role in the peopling of the Pacific and the cultural transformation of Neolithic Island Southeast Asia. Similarly, there is mounting evidence that small-scale coastal societies were often the pioneers in creating cross-cultural contacts and translocating plants and animals in the early Indian Ocean (Boivin & Fuller 2009).

In this paper we sketch the emerging picture of a dynamic prehistoric Indian Ocean, in which links were created between societies in East Africa, Arabia, South Asia and Southeast Asia, all prior to the development of the better documented trade of later periods, including the famous spice trade of the Roman and subsequent eras (Miller 1968; Cappers 2006; Boivin et al. 2009: 268-9). This picture emerges from archaeological evidence, and particularly the evidence of translocated crop plants, as well as from historical linguistics, most notably relating to tree crops and boat technology, with a growing contribution from genetic studies of animals, including domesticated and commensal species.

The Bronze Age inter-savannah translocations (c. 2000-1500 BC): north-east Africa, India, Arabia

The connections between Africa and India, which constitute the first act of the narrative of transoceanic connections in the north-western part of Indian Ocean (Figure 1), took place as the hitherto separate trading spheres of the Persian/Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden became interlinked, probably at the end of the third millennium BC. Trade and contact in the southern part of the Red Sea began as early as the Neolithic, as indicated by the movement of obsidian from Ethiopia to Yemen (Khalidi 2009), and from the fourth millennium BC stretched northward to Egypt as well, when incense and other goods were no doubt also part of the increasing flow of commodities across the region (Boivin & Fuller 2009). The much later expeditions of the Egyptian state southwards towards Punt, in search of incense and other exotica, were likely built on these earlier Neolithic contacts, which began in an era prior to local cereal agriculture, in which settlements are still mainly dominated by early to mid Holocene shell middens. …