The Use of Caves in Peninsular Thailand in the Late Pleistocene and Early and Middle Holocene

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Caves in peninsular Thailand have a complex history of human use ranging from brief campsites to long-term occupation and from locations of industrial activity to landscapes inhabited by spirit forces. In late Pleistocene times, dating from before than 40,000 B.P. to about 11,000 B.P., caves were used only sporadically as temporary campsites, where people built fires, fashioned tools, and consumed the meals of animal (and presumably plant) products. During early Holocene times, dating from before 11,000 B.P. to about 6500 B.P., many caves were occupied for sufficient duration to have built up sizable midden deposits, occasionally over 1 m thick. Some of these deposits also include burials, usually of single randomly placed individuals with few, if any, grave goods. During mid Holocene times, ca. 6500-3500 B.P., some caves were used as burial grounds, with little if any trace of occupation, whereas others were scenes of domestic activity. Mid Holocene and recent times also saw the use of cave walls as media for paintings, with depictions, often crude, of whole or parts of human figures, fish, birds, and land animals. KEYWORDS: prehistory, Southeast Asia, late Pleistocene, early Holocene, mid Holocene, caves.


MOST OF THE WELL-KNOWN CAVE SITES in mainland Southeast Asia are in Malaysia and Vietnam, where intensive prehistoric archaeological research spans more than a century. Thailand has had an active research program only since the 1960s, but is rapidly approaching the same level of coverage (Heekeren and Knuth 1967). In peninsular Thailand, however, cave research began in earnest only in the 1980s, and still lags behind that of other parts of Southeast Asia.

Caves in peninsular Thailand are prominent features in the landscape that have continued to attract people, not only as shelters and places of curiosity but also as locations for social and religious gatherings. Archaeological remains are to be found in nearly every sizable cave in the region, but we must remember that even at the best of times people likely spent only a small portion of their daily lives there, so a focus exclusively on cave use can only be part of their story. A fuller understanding of cave use must be part of broader studies of land use (Engelhardt and Rogers 1997). Also, to date, less than a dozen cave sites (and even fewer open prehistoric sites) have been archaeologically tested or excavated. Most of these are from the limestone karst regions of a portion of the peninsula, the four contiguous provinces of Phangnga, Krabi, Trang, and Satun, as well as Surat Thani, which drains eastward into the Gulf of Thailand (Fig. 1).


The following discussion focuses on only part of even this limited region: the limestone karst caves in Krabi Province. In this paper I have divided the region into five zones: interior, near coast, shore edge, partly submerged, and submerged. The interior caves are sufficiently distant from the coast to have never been directly influenced by rising or falling sea levels. But caves in the other zones have undergone significant changes in their settings, from interior to mangrove and intertidal, semi-submerged, and fully submerged settings, depending on their elevation relative to sea level at any point in time.


Peninsular Thailand, as the rest of the Malay peninsula, has a complex geological history (Bunopas 1982). Folding through crustal pressures from the west and faulting along several northeast-southwest oriented fault zones have resulted in a series of roughly parallel northeast-southwest trending mountain ranges running down the middle of the entire peninsula (Garson et al. 1975). The limestone karst that is scattered throughout the peninsula includes in southwestern Thailand (the Rat Buri formation) isolated towers that protrude through Quaternary alluvial cover in the coastal regions and Tertiary gravels in the near-coast zone, and through sands, oil shales, and lignite of the Krabi formation farther inland (Fig. …