Early Farming in Island Southeast Asia: An Alternative Hypothesis

By Denham, Tim | Antiquity, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Early Farming in Island Southeast Asia: An Alternative Hypothesis


Denham, Tim, Antiquity


Several recent articles in Antiquily (Barker et al. 201 la; Hung et al. 2011; Spriggs 2011), discuss the validity of, and revise, portrayals of an Austronesian farming- language dispersai across Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) during the mid-Holocene (approximately 4000- 3000 years ago). In conventional portrayals of the Austronesian dispersai hypothesis (e.g. Bellwood 1984/85, 1997, 2002, 2005; Diamond 2001 ; Diamond & Bellwood 2003), and its Neolithic variant (e.g. Spriggs 2003, 2007), farmer-voyagers migrated out of Taiwan approximately 4500-4000 cal BP to colonise ISEA from 4000 cal BP (Bellwood 2002) and the Mariana Islands and Palau by c. 3500-3400 cai BP (Hung et al. 2011). The descendants of these voyagers subsequently established the Lapita Cultural Complex inthe Bismarck Archipelago by c. 3470-3250 cal BP (Kirch 1997; Spriggs 1997) and became the foundational cultures across most of the Pacific from c. 3250-3100 cal BP (Kirch 2000; Addison & Matisoo-Smith 2010; dates for Lapita in Denham et al. 2012). A major problem with this historical metanarrative is the absence of substantial archaeological evidence for the contemporaneous spread of farming from Taiwan (Bulbeck 2008; Donohue & Denham 2010; Denham 2011).

There is widespread consensus that the colonisation of most of Remote Oceania after 3250-3100 cal BP was enabled by vegetative forms of cultivation and plants characteristic of the New Guinea region, as well as a suite of animal domesticates--chicken, dog and pig--of ultimate mainland Asian origin. There is considerable uncertainty and debate concerning how this Pacific production system developed within the maritime landscape of ISEA and Near Oceania during the mid-Holocene, especially within the putative framework of Austronesian dispersai (ffom c. 4500-4000 cal BP), and before its dispersai eastward to Remote Oceania (flora 3250-3100 cal BP). In this discursive note, which draws upon a host of recent literature, ah alternative view of early agriculture in ISEA is proposed that does not rely upon Austronesian dispersai from Taiwan. This alternative working hypothesis is based upon multidisciplinary evidence from ISEA, including the generation and spread of associated animal and plant domesticates. This interpretation does not privilege one region over another; rather it is multilocal and multidirectional.

Plant domesticates

East Asian agriculture is predominantly associated with the cultivation of sexually reproduced plants in fields, although a region of early vegetative propagation has been proposed in southern China (Zhao 2011). Open-field cultivation of domesticated rice was practiced in the Yangtze River region of China after 7000 cal BP (Fuller et al. 2009), became established on Taiwan by at least 4800 cal BP (Bellwood 2005, 2011), and yet was seemingly not widely established in ISEA until after 2000 cal BP (Anshari et al. 2001).

Plant domesticates from East Asia, such as rice (Oryza sativa) and foxtail millet (Setaria italica), are largely absent from the archaeobotanical record of early (here meaning pre-3000 cal BP) agriculture in ISEA (Donohue & Denham 2010). The identification of domesticated rice is problematic because criteria to differentiate wild and domesticated forms (e.g. compare Liu et al. 2007 with Fuller et al. 2009), as well as to differentiate O. sativa from other wild rice species that occur throughout ISEA, are either contentious in macrofossil (seed and rachis) and microfossil (pollen, phytolith and starch grain) assemblages, or have not been rigorously applied (Paz 2005). Consequently, all claims for early (pre-3000 cal BP) domesticated rice in ISEA should be viewed cautiously until archaeobotanical finds are evaluated more systematically.

Domestic-type rice is uncommon at sites pre-dating 3000 cal BP in ISEA, except in association with pottery (Paz 2002, 2005; Barker et al. 2011a). The paucity and ceramic associations of finds have led several commentators to infer that domesticated rice was originally derived from extralocal trade (Paz 2002), or was a minor ritual or status crop (Hayden 2011; Barton 2012), until it became a major staple after c. …

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