The Prehistory of a Friction Zone: First Farmers and Hunters-Gatherers in Southeast Asia

By Higham, C. F. W.; Guangmao, Xie et al. | Antiquity, June 2011 | Go to article overview

The Prehistory of a Friction Zone: First Farmers and Hunters-Gatherers in Southeast Asia


Higham, C. F. W., Guangmao, Xie, Qiang, Lin, Antiquity


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Introduction

The Neolithic Revolution in East and Southeast Asia and its aftermath have received much attention over the past two decades. It is now established that the cultivation of rice and the domestication of pigs and cattle took place in the Yangtze Valley even if the timing of the various stages in this process remain to be fixed (Fuller et al. 2009). This transition was, according to Bellwood (2005), the prime stimulus for the expansion of farming groups first to Taiwan and thence south to the Philippines and Island Southeast Asia. He has traced this on the basis of archaeological remains that link the islands with the Asian mainland, and the linguistic evidence for a deep antiquity in the Austronesian (AN) languages spoken on Taiwan (Bellwood & Oxenham 2008; Gray et al 2009).

When Reid (1994) identified structural relationships between Austronesian languages and the Austroasiatic (AA) language Noncowry, spoken on the Nicobar Islands, he returned to a century-old proposal by Schmidt (1906), that the AN and AA languages share a common ancestry in the Austric phylum. This lead Blust (1996) to pose the possibility that there was a second demographic expansion of rice farmers on the mainland. This would have involved movement up the Yangtze to Yunnan, and then by river south and west into Southeast Asia and India. Intriguingly, there are cognate words from the Munda group in India, and several AA languages in Southeast Asia, for words associated with rice and its cultivation (Higham 2002).

This possibility, that there was a major diffusion of rice farmers into Southeast Asia ultimately from the Yangtze Valley, has received some support from archaeological evidence (Rispoli 2008; Zhang & Hung 2010). In the first instance, there is the establishment of village communities of a permanent nature, with cemeteries in which the dead were inhumed in an extended, supine position with mortuary offerings. One of the commonest offerings comprises pottery vessels which, from southern China into Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, were decorated with incised and impressed designs which bear an uncanny resemblance over considerable distances. Further parallels are found in the very presence of rice, along with the domestic dog, pigs and cattle. Spindle whorls link the Chinese and Southeast Asian Neolithic sites, and suggest that weaving was an established part of Neolithic life (Cameron 2002). A prudent interpretation of the chronological evidence suggests that the first Neolithic groups began to settle the inland plains of Southeast Asia around 2000 BC. Under these circumstances, mainland Southeast Asia falls into what Bellwood has termed a 'Friction Zone', where farming groups expanded into an area long settled by established hunter-gatherers (Bellwood 2005).

Documenting this model for demographic expansion has paid much attention to the relevant Neolithic sites (Sorensen & Hatting 1967; Hoang & Nguyen 1978; Higham & Kijngam 2009). However, there has been less research on a vital aspect of the process as a whole: was the Neolithic intrusion a deluge or a trickle, and what was the relationship between the intrusive rice farmers and indigenous hunter-gatherers?

Identifying who these hunter-gatherers were, and illuminating their adaptation in a region that, even at the height of the last glacial, would have been benignly warm, is not straightforward. Both archaeological evidence and the results of simulation studies concur that the initial spread of Anatomically Modern Humans out of Africa followed a coastal route involving India and Southeast Asia (Escoffier et al. 2008). The DNA of surviving hunter-gatherers in Southeast Asia, such as the Andamanese and the Semang, reveal close correspondence with African groups. However, nowhere else was so much land lost to the rising sea during the Holocene. With the sea level at its lowest, an area the size of India, known as Sundaland, was not only there to be settled, but also led on to the very doorstep of Australia (Figure 1). …

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