Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Distribution and Variation in Sago Extraction Equipment: Convergent and Secondary Technologies in Island Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Distribution and Variation in Sago Extraction Equipment: Convergent and Secondary Technologies in Island Southeast Asia

Article excerpt


It is argued, following Francois Sigaut, that the way elements of technology are invented, borrowed and re-combined challenges the notion of 'technical lineage', with its implication of 'successive orderly accretions'. The contention is examined in relation to pith removal equipment used in palm starch extraction in island southeast Asia and Melanesia, which is considered additionally instructive because it yields some potential archaeological traces. The key archaeotypes--pounding and rasping tools--reflect convergent and secondary technologies that most likely were adapted to sago processing from other cultural domains. Pounders are found mainly in the eastern part of the geographic range, and rasps in the west. There is much variability in the distribution of types, even within a small area. Inferences are drawn relating to recent changes (for example, from stone to metal working edges, and from pounders to rasps), and concerning what we can learn from the distribution of different kinds of tool, including the likelihood of versions of the same tool co-existing in the same place, or being independently invented at opposite ends of the archipelago.

Keywords: sago, island southeast Asia, extraction tools, innovation


As Francois Sigaut (1994: 435) has warned, we need to be sceptical when it comes to the notion of 'technical lineage' in studies of the history, prehistory and archaeology of food procurement strategies. Aware that such an approach is often accompanied by a misleading implication of 'successive orderly accretions' of stylistic and functional elements, this article will attempt to demonstrate the point in relation to an aspect of palm starch processing. The distribution of this technology in southeast Asia displays a concurrent diversity of techniques in particular locations, the simultaneous development of similar technologies in widely separated places, and the interchange and hybridization of knowledge practices developed in relation to different genera of starch palms, all of which resonates with Sigaut's critique. I shall argue that the data suggest a need for a much more dynamic and nuanced view of the evolution of palm starch processing technology. Although some attention has been paid to the distribution of sago processing equipment in relation to issues in the archaeology and prehistory of Melanesia, the present article is original in its attempt to look at parallels and variations in an area delineated by the occurrence of sago-producing palms in island southeast Asia more generally. Within this general context it focuses more on the Moluccas, the material culture of which is less studied, but which in terms of the history and distribution of sago extraction and its technology is arguably transitional.

The extraction of palm starch for food is an ancient and widespread subsistence technique in large parts of southeast Asia and the western Pacific (Ruddle et al. 1978). In terms of the history of technology, it presents a paradoxical picture because while the methods are perceived as complex and its archaeology poorly understood, it is often hypothesized as a likely resource base for a pre-agricultural (certainly pre-cereal) phase of southeast Asian prehistory. In another paper (Ellen 2004a) I have examined this paradox in relation to that part of the technical process which involves converting stipe (stem or trunk) pith into raw flour. I show how the equipment employed displays a distribution which suggests that hand pressing technology is associated with Metroxylon sagu and foot pressing with other starch palms that are largely of importance west of Wallacea. As Metroxylon sagu spread westwards, so pre-existing local technologies were adapted to effect its processing. Unfortunately, this is an argument that is unlikely to be ever supported by extensive archaeological evidence, given the susceptibility of the equipment to rapid dispersal and decomposition, though there is some emerging evidence from Niah Cave in Sarawak for the presence of Caryota mitis and Eugeissona utilis starch, but not Metroxylon, in contexts suggesting its human use (Barton 2005). …

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