Asian Perspectives, vol. 44, no. 1 (2005): Human Use of Caves

SPECIAL ISSUE: The Human Use of Caves in Peninsular and Island Southeast Asia
GUEST EDITORS: Graeme Barker, Tim Reynolds, and David Gilbertson


The Human Use of Caves in Peninsular and Island Southeast Asia: Research Themes, 1
Graeme Barker, Tim Reynolds, and David Gilbertson

This paper introduces the essays in this volume. The challenging complexities of site formation and cave taphonomy in humid tropical environments are emphasized, as is the need for more sophisticated understanding of the geomorphological, biological, and taphonomic processes that affect tropical caves if archaeological remains within them are to be better understood. As the case studies in this collection illustrate, however, tropical cave excavations in peninsular and island Southeast Asia continue to provide new information that is shaping the agenda of discussions about the pathways of colonization of Pleistocene and Holocene human populations, their lifeways as foragers and farmers, and their belief systems as represented by their burials and cave art. The papers also emphasize the complexity of cave use in this region through time and space, but perhaps the most important argument of the volume is that the human use of caves here, past and present, can be understood only as integral components of wider cultural landscapes.
Keywords: burials, caves, rock shelters, cultural landscapes, farming, foraging, humid tropics, Peninsular Southeast Asia, Island Southeast Asia, taphonomy.


Past Human Activity and Geomorphological Change in a Guano-Rich Tropical Cave Mouth: Initial Interpretations of the Late Quaternary Succession in the Great Cave of Niah, Sarawak, 16
David Gilbertson, Michael Bird, Christopher Hunt, Sue McLaren, Richard Mani Banda, Brian Pyatt, James Rose, and Mark Stephens

This paper presents initial interpretations of the processes and events responsible for the late Quaternary sequence in the West Mouth of the Great Cave of Niah, in the hot and humid lowland rainforest and swamp forest of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo. It evaluates the geomorphological context of the site within the known pattern of rapid late Quaternary climate change. Attention is given to the proximity to the sea and the likelihood of humid tropical or cooler drier conditions. The stratigraphic succession is described and four units or lithofacies (2C, 2, 3 and 4) are recognized as being of particular geomorphological and archaeological importance. The key processes operating within the site are the accumulation and subsequent failure and flow of bat and bird guano, hillslope colluviation, and ephemeral stream flow and pond development. Units 2C and 2 contain the critical archaeology, including the Deep Skull from an anatomically modern human, discovered by Tom Harrisson. These were formed by colluviation from a complex cave-mouth rampart and stream flow from within the cave. The stream transported fine-grained sediment to a shallow pond, and both the stream and pond deposits show evidence for prolonged desiccation. Human activity is associated with these surfaces. The human remains and related archaeology are preserved because a mudflow (Unit 3) plowed into and overrode the land surface upon which the humans had lived, resulting in the deformation and burial of the surface and the preservation of the archaeological material. Provisional radiocarbon dates indicate that Units 2C and 2 accumulated from before ca. 45,000 B.P. until ca. 38,000 B.P. Dates bracketing the Deep Skull give this an age of ca. 45,000 B.P. to ca. 43,000 B.P. Overlying the mudflow, Unit 4, a silty diamicton with a relatively high carbonate and organic content, appears to have formed by a mix of natural colluvial and human transport processes, and is associated with human cultural material. Unpublished radiocarbon dates indicate that this deposit formed from before ca. 19,500 B.P. to ca. 8500 B.P. (uncalibrated).

This interpretation of the site and its finds has required detailed reconstruction of the changing palaeogeography within and beyond the cave entrance and the nature and rate of geomorphological processes operating within the region, which have been placed within models for rapid Quaternary environmental change. The results suggest that during the earlier period of human presence in the Great Cave of Niah (earlier than ca. 45,000 B.P. until ca. 38,000 B.P.), the climate was episodically wet with much longer periods of relative dryness. During the later period of human occupancy (ca. 19,500 B.P. to ca. 8500 B.P. [uncalibrated]), the evidence is less secure and a slightly moister climate is suggested.
Keywords: ancient humans, bioturbation, Borneo, cave, climatic change, coastal change, geoarchaeology, geomorphology, guano, Niah, rainforest, Sarawak, site formation processes, Sunda, tropics.

Micromorphology of Cave Sediments in the Humid Tropics: Niah Cave, Sarawak, 42
Mark Stephens, James Rose, David Gilbertson, and Matthew G. Canti

This is the first detailed study of the micromorphology of archaeologically important cave sediments in the Great Cave of Niah, in the humid tropics of Sarawak, Borneo. Micromorphology is used to describe the sediments and post-depositional alteration, reconstruct the palaeoenvironments, and refine the environmental history of late Pleistocene deposits associated with the human remains (the so-called Deep Skull dated to ca. 43,000–42,000 B.P.). Micromorphology provides details of the shape, roundedness, arrangement, and chemistry of grains, aggregates, precipitates, and sedimentary structures that make up the cave sediments. The dominant processes in the West Mouth of the Great Cave of Niah are guano sedimentation, fluvial and shallow pond deposition interrupted by desiccation, mass movement, and chemical weathering. Also important is post-depositional alteration by bioturbation, mineral translocation and reprecipitation, and diagenesis. Micromorphology also provides evidence for short periods of soil development, burnt surfaces, and deposition of small fragments of bone within the sediment. Together this information indicates the fine details of the environment occupied by humans, the scale and effects of the mass movement processes that deformed the beds in which the human remains are preserved, and the taphonomic processes that reworked and redistributed archaeological material within this part of the cave.
Keywords: micromorphology, cave sediments, human remains, Niah Cave, Borneo, humid tropics.

The Case for Rainforest Foragers: The Starch Record at Niah Cave, Sarawak, 56
Huw Barton

A study of preserved starch grains from sedimentary sequences at Niah Cave, Sarawak, Borneo, reveals direct evidence for the use of rainforest plants rich in digestible carbohydrates. Plants identified include several species of Aroids (Alocasia sp., Cyrtosperma sp.), at least one species of yam (Dioscorea sp.), and the pith of sago palm (cf. Caryota mitis, Eugeissona utilis). Starch grains from a total of fourteen recurring types indicate that a wide range of starch-rich plants are present in Pleistocene occupation sediments from the cave, and await identification with a more comprehensive reference collection of tropical species. The technique of starch extraction from archaeological sediments presents archaeologists with a new and powerful tool for investigating the past diet of tropical forest hunter-gatherers.
Keywords: starch, starch grains, foraging, rainforest, tubers, palm sago.

Reconstructing Human Subsistence in the West Mouth (Niah Cave, Sarawak) Burial Series Using Stable Isotopes of Carbon, 73
John Krigbaum

The human burial series from the West Mouth of Niah Cave (Sarawak) offers a unique opportunity to explore prehistoric subsistence patterns in lowland tropical rainforest. Over 200 primary and secondary burials, classified as pre-Neolithic and Neolithic, have been recovered since preliminary excavations began there a half-century ago. Stable isotope ratios of carbon (13C/12C, reported as δ13C values) derived from human tooth enamel provide a quantitative measure of individual food consumption during the time of enamel formation. Such data provide a robust and independent assessment of total diet that complements other subsistence information recovered from the archaeological record. West Mouth human tooth enamel examined shows a broad range of δ13C values (–15.7‰ to –11.3‰), consistent with a C3-based subsistence regime as would be expected in rainforest habitats dominated by C3 vegetation. Pre-Neolithic individuals have more negative δ13C values on average (N = 15, X = –14.3‰) than Neolithic individuals sampled (N = 28, X = –13.1‰). This isotopic shift is statistically significant and suggests a fundamental change in human subsistence between the late Pleistocene/early Holocene and later Holocene inhabitants at Niah. Pre-Neolithic δ13C values suggest broad spectrum rainforest foraging, whereas less negative Neolithic δ13C values, on average, suggest a more coordinated regime of food production and/or collection. Studies of δ13C variation in rainforest habitats contribute to this interpretation, particularly with respect to the ‘‘canopy effect,’’ whereby closed-canopy foraging predicts more negative δ13C values, while food resources consumed by exploiting more open settings (such as fields, gaps, and swamps) predict less negative δ13C values. These data have important implications for interpreting the nature of human subsistence in a rainforest setting prior to and after the potential adoption of agriculture by the inhabitants represented in the West Mouth burial series.
Keywords: Niah Cave, Southeast Asia, Borneo, prehistory, late Pleistocene, Holocene, Neolithic, bioarchaeology, palaeodiet, subsistence, carbon isotopes.

The Archaeology of Foraging and Farming at Niah Cave, Sarawak, 90
Graeme Barker

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 forager-farmer 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.


Rock Shelters, Caves, and Archaeobotany in Island Southeast Asia, 107
Victor Paz

This paper presents the state of archaeobotanical research at rock shelters and cave sites in Island Southeast Asia and its potential for enhancing our knowledge of the region’s prehistory. It takes stock of what has been done, what is being done, and the prospects for archaeobtanical research in the region. This paper argues that the knowledge we generate from archaeobotany, in tandem with other methodologies, can lead to a better understanding of past subsistence strategies in the region. It also takes the view that knowledge derived from analyzing cave deposits is better utilized when seen in relation to the wider human landscape, at whatever scale a study takes.
Keywords: archaeobotany, rock shelters and caves, Island Southeast Asia.

Cave Use Variability in Central Maluku, Eastern Indonesia, 119
D. Kyle Latinis and Ken Stark

This paper explores variability in cave use in central Maluku from initial settlement in the late Pleistocene to the ethnographic present. Significant variability exists. Historic and ethnographic accounts highlight cave use that is not often considered by archaeologists. Some uses may leave few archaeological signatures. Factors affecting different cave uses are examined, including environmental, social/cultural, and historical factors. The effects of immigrant population influences, such as the Austronesian immigration into and/or influence on central Maluku, are also important considerations. The possibility of multiple migrations of pre-Austronesians and various Austronesian groups, and the subsequent effects on cave use, are also discussed. Archaeological case studies include the Labarisi site (north Buru), the Hatusua site (southwest Seram), and several cave sites on the northern Leihitu Peninsula (Ambon).
Keywords: central Maluku, pre-Austronesian, Austronesian.

The Use of Caves in Peninsular Thailand in the Late Pleistocene and Early and Middle Holocene, 137
Douglas Anderson

Caves in peninsular Thailand have a complex history of human use ranging from brief campsites to long-term occupation and from locations of industrial activity to landscapes inhabited by spirit forces. In late Pleistocene times, dating from before than 40,000 B.P. to about 11,000 B.P., caves were used only sporadically as temporary campsites, where people built fires, fashioned tools, and consumed the meals of animal (and presumably plant) products. During early Holocene times, dating from before 11,000 B.P. to about 6500 B.P., many caves were occupied for suffcient duration to have built up sizable midden deposits, occasionally over 1 m thick. Some of these deposits also include burials, usually of single randomly placed individuals with few, if any, grave goods. During mid Holocene times, ca. 6500–3500 B.P., some caves were used as burial grounds, with little if any trace of occupation, whereas others were scenes of domestic activity. Mid Holocene and recent times also saw the use of cave walls as media for paintings, with depictions, often crude, of whole or parts of human figures, fish, birds, and land animals.
Keywords: prehistory, Southeast Asia, late Pleistocene, early Holocene, mid Holocene, caves.

The Early Exploitation of Southeast Asian Mangroves: Bone Technology from Caves and Open Sites, 154
Ryan J. Rabett

This paper focuses on the contribution that the study of bone technology is making to the understanding of early tropical subsistence in Southeast Asia. Newly completed research suggests that during the period from the terminal Pleistocene to mid Holocene, bone tools may have featured prominently in coastal subsistence. There are indications that this technology may have had a particular association with hunting and gathering in the mangrove forests that proliferated along many coasts during this period. The study of these tools thus represents a rare chance to examine prehistoric extractive technologies, which are generally agreed to have been predominantly made on organic, nonpreserving media. The evidence presented also suggests that prehistoric foragers from this region possessed a good working understanding of the mechanical properties of bone and used bone implements where conditions and needs suited the parameters of this material.
Keywords: bone technology, Sundaland, coastal subsistence.


Continuity in Tropical Cave Use: Examples from East Timor and the Aru Islands, Maluku, 180
Peter Veth, Matthew Spriggs, and Sue O’Connor

The Aru Islands and East Timor fall within the biogeographic region known as Wallacea and have lain within the tropics for the known history of human occupation. Recent research has identified archaeological sequences that parallel the older radiocarbon chronologies from Australia. Terminal Pleistocene hunter-gatherer assemblages recovered from at least six caves register the introduction of a Neolithic technocomplex after ca. 4000 B.P. in the form of pottery, domesticates, ovens, the industrial use of shell, and some endemic extinctions. However, there are also intriguing uniformities in the cultural assemblages: in the suites of artifacts discarded and assumed supply zones for those artifacts, in the economic faunal suites, and in the apparent level of intensity of occupation of the di€erent sites. We concur with and extend the argument made by Glover (1986) that there was no substantial change in the nature of cave use in East Timor despite the possible subsistence changes that might have taken place. Their remarkable continuities reflect their similar placement within larger regional land-use systems through time: they represent diverse components of a larger domestic and totemic landscape, which appears to continue to this day. The scale of territoriality, degree of mobility, and extent of trade and exchange of groups must all be considered if the placement of caves within cultural landscapes is to be understood.
Keywords: Southeast Asia, cave use, Pleistocene, Holocene, cultural landscapes, Aru Islands, East Timor.

Toward a Cultural Topography of Cave Use in East Timor: A Preliminary Study, 193
Sandra Pannell and Sue O’Connor

In his seminal work on the archaeology of East Timor, Ian Glover (1986) notes that there appeared to be little archaeological evidence for change in the nature of cave use as a focus for settlement, despite the subsistence changes that occurred with the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Looking to the ethnographic record for hunter-gatherer groups, he found little evidence to support the expectation that caves served as ‘‘permanent home bases’’ and commented that ‘‘at a time when stable village settlements existed in Timor it is inevitable that the caves provide an even more biased sample of the total Timorese way of life . . .’’ (1986: 206). In this paper we revisit the issue of contemporary cave occupation in East Timor with the purpose of providing a more detailed ethnographic discussion of the caves’ various uses and meanings. These encompass both the sorts of secular uses described by Glover as well as the social status of caves as sacred or in other ways significant natural formations in the cultural topography of local and national landscapes. The implications some of these observations on contemporary cave use hold for the interpretation of the archaeological record are briefly explored. We also review the sparse literature on contemporary cave use for tropical and tropical semi-arid regions and conclude that the notions of ‘‘permanent home cases’’ and ‘‘stable village settlements’’ are probably not very meaningful, either in contemporary horticultural or past hunter-gatherer contexts.
Keywords: contemporary cave use, East Timor, ethnoarchaeology, Island Southeast Asia.

Prehistoric Hunting Strategies in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea: The Evidence of te Cuscus (Phalanger orientalis) Remains from Buang Merabak Cave, 207
Matthew G. Leavesley

The cuscus, Phalanger orientalis, was probably the most important food source in New Ireland from its introduction 20,000 years ago until the introduction of the pig, Sus scrofa, 3500 years ago. Terrestrial, or land-based, fauna were an essential part of the prehistoric diet because they provided both protein and fat, which were often difficult to obtain from marine resources alone. P. orientalis was an important prey species because New Ireland had a relatively low range of prey taxa. Prior to 20,000 B.P., the New Ireland fauna were relatively meager: the potential terrestrial prey taxa for prehistoric hunters included bats, rats, birds, and reptiles. The introduction of the cuscus dramatically increased the number of individual animals and therefore expanded the island-based protein resource available to prehistoric hunters. This paper investigates the nature of the late Pleistocene to Holocene capture of P. orientalis based on data from Buang Merabak, a central New Ireland cave site, and investigates whether prehistoric hunters captured P. orientalis of a particular age and how this changed over time.
Keywords: Pleistocene, hunting strategies, Phalanger orientalis, cuscus, New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea.

Rock Art, Burials, and Habitations: Caves in East Kalimantan, 219
Jean-Michel Chazine

This paper presents a brief summary of a program of study of the archaeology of caves and rock shelters in East Kalimantan, especially the results of recent fieldwork along the Marang River. The caves and rock shelters cluster into three groups in terms of their elevations in the karstic landscape and their archaeological remains. The highest and most inaccessible caves are the locations of rock paintings. Caves at middle locations have produced evidence for funerary activity. Large, dry rock shelters, mostly flat-bottomed, at the foot of the cli€s were preferred for habitation. The paintings consist especially of hand stencils but also include anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures as well as other motifs. A stalactite date indicates that the earliest hand stencils may predate ca. 10,000 B.P., and drawings of what may be extinct animals suggest that some of the other motifs could be of such antiquity. The funerary material includes both pottery similar to Neolithic material elsewhere in Borneo and also later material associated with bronze artifacts. Some of the habitation sites may be pre-Neolithic on the evidence of multiple AMS dates between 4,000 and 11,750 B.P.; others are more recent. A particular focus of further research will need to be an attempt to establish the antiquity and the authorship of the rock art, and its relationship, if any, to the Holocene uses of the caves for burials and habitation.
Keywords: Kalimantan, Borneo, rock art, cave burial, cave habitation.

Patterns of Habitation and Burial Activity in the Ban Rai Rock Shelter, Northwestern Thailand, 231
Cherdsak Treerayapiwat

The excavation of Ban Rai rock shelter (Pang Mapha district, Mae Hong Son Province, northwestern Thailand) has uncovered evidence relating to changing patterns of prehistoric human activity. Analyses of the excavation data, along with radiocarbon dating, have enabled the identification of two separate cultural components. The earlier component, the pre–Log Coffin culture, is dated by 14C to between ca. 12,500 and 8000 B.P. and is characterized by a wide range of lithics, an abundance of faunal remains, and a primary flexed burial. The second component, the Log Coffin culture, probably dates to ca. 2100–1200 B.P. and yielded human remains, potsherds, and iron tools, in addition to the log coffins themselves and their supporting posts. The composition of the artifact assemblages provided the main basis for the separation of the components, which has highlighted the changing use of the Ban Rai rock shelter from a primarily habitation to an exclusively burial site.
Keywords: Ban Rai, Log Coffin culture, lithics, Hoabinhian, flexed burial.