A Highway and a Crossroads: Island Southeast Asia and Culture Contact Archaeology

Article excerpt


Island Southeast Asia has several distinctive elements of its archaeological and documentary record that make it a particularly fertile region in which to further explore and develop theories of culture contact and cross-cultural interaction. In contrast to the traditional view of other regions, such as pre-European contact North America, archaeologists have always seen Island Southeast Asia as a zone of cross-cultural interaction, or as a passageway for migrations to other areas. Despite this potential, the region remains relatively under-explored archaeologically, and problems of cross-cultural interaction have not been the orientation for most of the archaeological research that has been done. There axe several possible explanations for this relative lack of focus: this paper will review several case studies that demonstrate how additional research can contribute to general theory about the interaction of human social groups.

Island Southeast Asia as highway or crossroads?

Archaeological (and historical) interest in Island Southeast Asia has been largely based on the conception of the region as being between other places of interest (Wisseman Christie 1995). Archaeological interest in the earliest modern human occupation of the region (60-35,000 BP), for example, has been oriented primarily towards finding the routes of the first migrations from Asia to Australia (Bellwood 1997, 1998; Spriggs 1998a, 1998b; Spriggs et al. 1998; Veth et al. 1998). Similarly, interest in the period from 4500-2500 BP is primarily focused on tracing the spread of Neolithic innovation from its source in Taiwan to its easternmost expression as Lapita in Melanesia, where the highway becomes a high-speed expressway for some (e.g. Bellwood 1997; Diamond 1988; cf. Oppenheimer and Richards 2001). For later periods (2500-500 BP), research initially focused on understanding the relationship between the cultures of India and China, which met or collided in mainland and island Southeast Asia (Coedes 1968), although archaeology of this time period has more recently been concerned with internal developments. However, by and large, the Island Southeast Asian archaeological record has served to provide evidence for migration chronologies and routes to and from other places. While some researchers with a "highway" orientation have suggested that a "crossroads" focus would be interesting and relevant to current theoretical debates (e.g. Spriggs 2000:65), few have addressed interaction specifically, especially for periods predating 2500 BP. Highway focused Island Southeast Asianists have bucked the trends in general archaeological theory that have swung between migration and diffusion (or its more recent theoretical manifestations), which are only recently swinging back towards revisiting migration (Adams et al. 1978; Bronson 1992; Burmeister 2000; Harke 1998; Loofs 1993).

The archaeology of post 2500 BP periods provides a useful model for the study of cross-cultural interaction that might be applied to earlier periods. It is during this later period that archaeologists see increasing social "complexity" in the region, marked by the development of chiefdoms and early states, the growing importance of maritime trade and resulting cultural influences and contacts from the outside world, including China, India, the Arab world and eventually Europe. The earliest surviving written documents that describe Island Southeast Asia date to this period, and are both texts written by "foreign" observers from China and India, and, later, "indigenous" texts, the earliest surviving examples being stone inscriptions. As early as 2000 BP, these documents strongly suggest that there were communities in Island Southeast Asia that were regularly visited by traders and missionaries from distant places (Glover 1990; Ray 1989; Rockhill 1915). Archaeologically, there is also definitive evidence of this interaction, including the existence of exotic trade goods from mainland Asia and the subcontinent, and exotic styles, such as Hindu-Buddhist temple styles replicated in western Indonesia. …


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.