Reconstructing Human Subsistence in the West Mouth (Niah Cave, Sarawak) Burial Series Using Stable Isotopes of Carbon

By Krigbaum, John | Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Reconstructing Human Subsistence in the West Mouth (Niah Cave, Sarawak) Burial Series Using Stable Isotopes of Carbon


Krigbaum, John, Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific


ABSTRACT

The human burial series from the West Mouth of Niah Cave (Sarawak) offers a unique opportunity to explore prehistoric subsistence patterns in lowland tropical rainforest. Over 200 primary and secondary burials, classified as pre-Neolithic and Neolithic, have been recovered since preliminary excavations began there a half-century ago. Stable isotope ratios of carbon (sup.13]C/[sup.12]C, reported as [[delta].sup.13]C values) derived from human tooth enamel provide a quantitative measure of individual food consumption during the time of enamel formation. Such data provide a robust and independent assessment of total diet that complements other subsistence information recovered from the archaeological record. West Mouth human tooth enamel examined shows a broad range of [[delta].sup.13]C values (-15.7 [per thousand] to -11.3 [per thousand]), consistent with a [C.sub.3]-based subsistence regime as would be expected in rainforest habitats dominated by [C.sub.3] vegetation. Pre-Neolithic individuals have more negative [[delta].sup.13]C values on average (N = 15, X = -14.3 [per thousand]) than Neolithic individuals sampled (N = 28, X = 13.1 [per thousand]). This isotopic shift is statistically significant and suggests a fundamental change in human subsistence between the late Pleistocene/early Holocene and later Holocene inhabitants at Niah. Pre-Neolithic [[delta].sup.13]C values suggest broad spectrum rainforest foraging, whereas less negative Neolithic [[delta].sup.13]C values, on average, suggest a more coordinated regime of food production and/or collection. Studies of [[delta].sup.13]C variation in rainforest habitats contribute to this interpretation, particularly with respect to the "canopy effect," whereby closed-canopy foraging predicts more negative [[delta].sup.13]C values, while food resources consumed by exploiting more open settings (such as fields, gaps, and swamps) predict less negative [[delta].sup.13]C values. These data have important implications for interpreting the nature of human subsistence in a rainforest setting prior to and after the potential adoption of agriculture by the inhabitants represented in the West Mouth burial series. KEYWORDS: Niah Cave, Southeast Asia, Borneo, prehistory, late Pleistocene, Holocene, Neolithic, bioarchaeology, palaeodiet, subsistence, carbon isotopes.

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THIS PAPER PRESENTS A PALAEODIETARY ANALYSIS using stable carbon isotopes of tooth enamel to explore diachronic patterns of human subsistence in the terminal Pleistocene and Holocene at Niah Cave (Sarawak, Malaysia). Niah's West Mouth has produced an outstanding archaeological assemblage (Barker et al. 2000, 2001, 2002a, 2002b, 2003; T. Harrisson 1957, 1959, 1972; Zuraina 1982) that "contains the longest stratified record of human occupation in Island Southeast Asia" (Bellwood 1997: 172). Aside from early human remains of late Pleistocene context, most proper burials recovered from the West Mouth can be considered terminal Pleistocene or Holocene in age (Bellwood 1997; Brooks et al. 1979; B. Harrisson 1967; Krigbaum and Manser in prep.). The burial series provides a unique opportunity to address diachronic trends in pre-Neolithic and Neolithic human subsistence patterns in a single locale. Isotopic data presented below provide a fresh perspective for understanding prehistoric lifeways of foraging populations inhabiting tropical lowland settings in Southeast Asia, particularly with respect to how caves serve as a component of complex subsistence and settlement patterns (Anderson 1997).

THE RESEARCH CONTEXT

Surprisingly, little detailed work has been conducted on reconstructing prehistoric human subsistence in the lowland tropics of Southeast Asia. In part this is due to negative evidence in the record and the paucity of sites of appropriate age. Post-glacial changes in topography and climate have greatly affected what evidence might exist for late Pleistocene human presence. …

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Reconstructing Human Subsistence in the West Mouth (Niah Cave, Sarawak) Burial Series Using Stable Isotopes of Carbon
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