The Archaeology of Foraging and Farming at Niah Cave, Sarawak

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2005
Authors
Barker, Graeme
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University of Hawai'i Press (Honolulu)
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Abstract
This paper reports on the principal archaeological results of a renewed program of fieldwork in the Niah Caves (Sarawak) by an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists and environmental scientists. The paper focuses on two main themes: (1) the evidence for the changing nature of the human use of the cave and the implications of this evidence for wider debates in Southeast Asia regarding the foraging behaviors of the modern human populations who colonized the region in the later Pleistocene, and (2) the character of the later transition from foraging to farming. The first foragers visiting the caves ca. 45,000 years ago encountered much more varied landscapes than the present-day equatorial evergreen rainforest around Niah, though they were ones in which rainforest probably remained a component. A remarkable array of organic evidence indicates that the Pleistocene foragers using the caves exploited such landscapes with a combination of hunting, fishing, mollusk collection, and plant gathering, the latter including tuberous forest plants such as aroids, taro, yam, and sago palm. In the mid Holocene, when the landscape surrounding the cave was more similar to that of today, the primary use of the caves was for burials: the West Mouth of the Great Cave in particular was the location for an elaborate Neolithic cemetery that was characterized by a considerable degree of formal planning through its ca. 2500-year life. However, Neolithic people may also have used the West Mouth for habitation, as they certainly used other entrances of the cave complex. Based on present evidence, their subsistence base appears to have been forest foraging, though they were in contact with rice farmers. The remarkable antiquity and longevity of rainforest foraging knowledge and technologies at Niah appear to be among the most important conclusions emerging from the project, findings that may provide further support for arguments against the foragerfarmer dichotomy that underpins the currently dominant model of agricultural origins in Southeast Asia. KEYWORDS: Niah Caves, Borneo, tropics, rainforest foraging, Neolithic burial, transitions to farming.
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Niah Caves, Borneo, tropics, rainforest foraging, Neolithic burial, transitions to farming
Citation
Barker, G. 2005. The Archaeology of Foraging and Farming at Niah Cave, Sarawak. Asian Perspectives 44 (1): 90-106.
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