Cut Not Smashed: A New Type of Evidence for Nut Exploitation from Sulawesi

Article excerpt

In archaeology the recovery of `nuts' means the recovery of any hard-shelled fruit or seeds, further qualified as those eaten by people. Recent analysis of environmental samples from Leang Burung-1 in the Maros district of Sulawesi (FIGURE 1) led to the recovery of a charred, almost intact nut, in deposits with an age range of 1430 [+ or -] 600 BC (ANU-390) (Bulbeck 1997; Mulvaney & Soejono 1970).


The nut has a clear cut mark starting from the tapered end, running along the long axis. The cut was established as an incision and not a taphonomic feature based on observations under light microscopy and Scanning Electron Microscopy, where the cut could be seen scraping the outer tissue (FIGURE 2). The cut was probably made before charring, using a sharp tool to cut deep enough for the instrument to pry open one of the locules to get to one of three kernels. Based on the associated materials recovered from the site, the cut probably was made using one of several flaked tool types recovered from the area, such as a levallois point -- part of the Maros region blade assemblage (FIGURE 3).


Using reference collections and image references, the nut was determined as probably Beilschmiedia sp. This determination is based on a morphological match with an image reference of B. roxburghiana (Menninger 1977: 26) (FIGURE 4). The ethnographic record mentions the exploitation of some species of this genus in Southeast Asia: B. malaccensis for its timber, B. pahangensis and B. tonkinensis for the medicinal properties of their bark (Burkill 1966). In the Sahul region, the nuts of at least two species of this tree -- B. tawa and B. bancroftii -- are consumed after transforming the kernel into flour (Menninger 1977; Kiple & Ornelas 2000). A stronger determination may be possible in the future when a more developed reference collection is available.


Nut shell fragments are ubiquitous in archaeo-botanical assemblages, especially in Island Southeast Asia and Oceania. Often human agency in the deposition of these remains can be seen when the shells are smashed and charred. The nature of the fragmentation can easily be connected to an anthropogenic smashing activity when found in established habitation or camp sites such as Leang Burung-1, Madai in Sabah and Batu Ejaya north of Leang Burung, to name a few in the immediate region.

Determining nut fragments as a by-product of human agency is seldom problematic, especially with ethnographic analogies that show the use of hammers and pestles for cracking nuts. For example, in the archaeology of the nearby Celebes Island of Moratai, in the site of Tanjung Pinang, a stone anvil dating to c. 5000 to 3000 BP was interpreted as a Canarium spp. nut cracker through ethnographic examples (Bellwood et al. 1998). This analogy between current human modification patterns on nut remains and past practices was also the basis for establishing human agency on waterlogged nut fragments from Arawe Island sites in West New Britain (Mathew & Gosden 1997).

The recovery of a nut with a clear cut mark avoids other taphonomic possibilities for the nature of the deposition, and also limits ethnographic analogies. …