Anything but a Backwater

By Kirch, Patrick V. | Antiquity, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Anything but a Backwater


Kirch, Patrick V., Antiquity


In the spring of 1970, tired of the chilly Philadelphia winters where I was studying archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, I arranged to spend a semester at the University of Hawai'i. There I enrolled in Professor Wilhelm G. Solheim II's course in the prehistory of Southeast Asia. Bill Solheim--a colorful character if ever there was one, with his handle-bar mustache and endless anecdotes--was just then stirring up the sleepy field of Southeast Asian archaeology and prehistory. Together with his graduate students Chet Gorman and Don Bayard, Bill was making all kinds of startling claims about the course of cultural evolution in what most scholars had taken to be a secondary backwater: evidence for strikingly early plant domestication from Spirit Cave, precocious advances in bronze metallurgy at Non Nok Tah, and similar claims. At the time, Peter Bellwood, then based at the University of Auckland, was still focused on research among the islands of eastern Polynesia. But Peter saw the exciting developments coming out of Southeast Asia and soon decamped to The Australian National University in Canberra. Out of this new base he began his long and fruitful career of fieldwork in island Southeast Asia, and as the preeminent synthesiser of the region's prehistory.

The five papers in this special section of Antiquity--originally presented at a symposium honoring Bellwood's contributions to Southeast Asian prehistory--demonstrate just how far the field has moved from where it was when I sat in Solheim's seminar four decades ago. Charles Higham shows us how the landscape of domestication and the spread of early farming has proved to be far more complex than either Solheim or Gorman had imagined based on the early plant remains from Spirit Cave. While Southeast Asian hunters and gatherers were doubtless experimenting with plant domestication during the Early Holocene (the Hoabinhian as it is known in local terminology), the transition to agriculture across this vast region was caught up in several grand processes, including the drowning of the vast continental shelves of Sundaland (and the many coastal adaptations this surely entailed) and the demic expansion of rice cultivators out of the Yangtze River valley. Rather than an indigenous evolutionary transition from hunting-and-gathering to horticulture in Southeast Asia, Higham envisions an expanding 'friction zone' of complex inter-cultural exchange. But the indigenous populations of Southeast Asia did not disappear, as recent DNA analyses are making clear. Rather, in these complex and nuanced interactions in the friction zone, the remarkable ethnic and human biological diversity of Southeast Asia was forged.

Yet if the 'Neolithisation' of Southeast Asia took place in part across a friction zone extending outwards from the Yangtze, this by no means explains the whole picture. Spriggs reminds us that there is no clear-cut boundary between Island Southeast Asia and what Pacific archaeologists have come to call Near Oceania: the large islands of New Guinea and the adjacent Bismarck Archipelago. There is little doubt that these latter were also a locus of experiments in plant domestication and other kinds of Early Holocene adaptations which no doubt leaked steadily westwards. …

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