Archaeology and the Austronesian Expansion: Where Are We Now?

By Spriggs, Matthew | Antiquity, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Archaeology and the Austronesian Expansion: Where Are We Now?


Spriggs, Matthew, Antiquity


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Introduction

My own particular inspiration for embarking on an examination of the ISEA and Pacific radiocarbon corpus in the late 1980s was threefold. Perhaps most directly it came from an article by Ellen and Glover (1974) on pottery production and trade in eastern Indonesia, where Glover presented what dates were then available for the Neolithic spread across ISEA and into the western Pacific. Another inspiration was Highams attempt at what has come to be known as chronometric hygiene'--Wilfred Shawcross' marvellous ad-libbed term adopted by me in 1989--in trying to bring some order to disordered mainland Southeast Asian sequences for the beginnings of bronze use (Higham 1983, 1996/7 [first pub. 1988]). Finally, in most people's minds the link between the spread of AN languages and that of the Neolithic across ISEA is particularly associated with Peter Bellwood and his major syntheses starting from Mans conquest of the Pacific (1978) to Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago (1985; second edition 1997). The latter of these works was indeed another inspiration. My initial published reaction (Spriggs 1989) to the first edition was that the volume did not discuss the minutiae of the radiocarbon dates it was underpinned by--which left one somewhat unsatisfied. There was certainly a need for a critical examination of the ISEA radiocarbon corpus by the end of the 1980s as new dates became available. One of my papers explicitly considered changes in the 1997, second edition, of Bellwood's Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago in relation to the latest radiocarbon dates available (Spriggs 1999; see also Spriggs 1996a, 1998, 2000, 2001). A subsequent paper gave a full listing of all pertinent dates in ISEA and Near Oceania (Spriggs 2003), and was itself updated four years later (Spriggs 2007a).

I return to the theme of these papers here, not to give a further update (see Spriggs 2010), but to consider some of the important issues that have come up over the last 20 years in relation to the nature of the expansion of the ISEA Neolithic and the link between it and the spread of AN languages across the region. These issues include: the fall-out from the collapse of the consensus model of ISEA AN subgrouping; the question of one Neolithic or multiple 'Neolithics' in ISEA; the early spread of domesticated plants westward into ISEA from the New Guinea centre of agriculture; the question of whether there was a Neolithic cultural 'package' that spread along with the AN languages and whether we are comparing the right sites in examining the AN spread (for sites mentioned see Figure 1).

Blust's subgrouping model challenged

The most important development has been the collapse in acceptance of Blusts 1970s and 1980s model of AN subgrouping in ISEA, adopted by many archaeologists for decades as the last word on the subject (Blust 1976, 1978, 1982, 1988). Linguists such as Mark Donohue and others have launched major assaults on the model in recent years, proposing a trajectory from Proto-Austronesian to Proto-Malayo-Polynesian (PMP) to Eastern Malayo-Polynesian (EMP) to Proto-Oceanic (PO) (Donohue & Grimes 2008; Klamer et al 2008; Donohue & Denham 2010; see Figure 2).

We can use the spread of the ISEA Neolithic as a proxy for AN language spread, as justified at length by Pawley (2004) and Ross (2008), among others. In doing this, it is very hard to see anything between PMP and EMP at all from the archaeology. It would seem that movements out of Taiwan were rapid after about 4000 BP and by 3800 BP dialects of PMP were spoken everywhere from the Philippines to eastern Borneo, Sulawesi and south to East Timor, spreading with the first pottery-using cultures in those areas. Currently the dates for the EMP area in northern Maluku do seem to reflect a later time of spread, at about 3500 BP, as with Palau and the Marianas and Java. This could conceivably have been a pause related to a shift from rice and millet to predominately New Guinea-derived root crops (see below). …

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