A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
An alternative view of the rise of civilizations
Most of the islands in Southeast Asia are the surviving remnants of a massive subcontinent twice the size of India fused together 18,000 to 20,000 years ago by the lowering of the world's sea levels by 120-130 meters (392-425 feet) during the last Pleistocene glacial advance. Many scholars have seen this basic fact of local geological history as something they could safely ignore, for the Pleistocene ended 10,000 years ago. But archaeological discoveries in recent years have established that Homo sapiens reached island Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Guinea--as well as other nearby islands farther out in the Pacific such as New Britain and the Northern Solomons--at least 30,000 to 45,000 years ago. Cro-Magnon Man in Europe was not alone in having to contend with the last Ice Age.
In Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia, Stephen Oppenheimer brings this former Southeast Asian subcontinent to the foreground and asks an intriguing question: what did coastal people do when rising sea levels at the close of the Pleistocene were flooding so much of their homeland?
His answer to this basic question is grounded on three major inferences. First, he notes that the glaciers that had come into being during the last advance did not simply melt away into the world's oceans like so many gigantic ice cubes in a summer's glass of iced tea--that is, the world's oceans did not rise at a uniform rate. In North America and Eurasia, huge temporary lakes of meltwater formed behind natural dams of ice and earth. Geologists now believe that on a number of occasions between 14,000 and 7,000 years ago, these vast natural reservoirs may have suddenly breached their dams, rapidly flooding coastal areas around the globe.
Second, Oppenheimer suggests that by 9,000-10,000 years ago some people in Southeast Asia had apparently become agriculturalists, not just hunters and gatherers. He reports evidence of wild yam and taro cultivation found in Indonesia dating back to between 15,000 and 10,000 B.C.; rice cultivation may be nearly as old in what is now Malaysia.
Third, early agriculturalists were probably among those in Southeast Asia who were displaced by these sudden and overwhelming floods. Survivors of these catastrophes must have sought new lands elsewhere, taking their legends and concepts of religion, astronomy, magic, and social hierarchy with them wherever they went. These transported elements of their heritage, Oppenheimer argues, were the seeds of the creative genius of the great civilizations that developed later in India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Mediterranean. "The theory that I present in this book places Southeast Asia for the first time at the centre of the origins of culture and civilization," he writes. "I argue that many people were driven out of their coastal homes in the East by flooding. These refugees then fertilized the great civilizations in the West."
Eden in the East is an original and provocative book, well worth buying and reading. However idiosyncratic this volume may be, it will provoke useful talk. Frankly I think we need more books like this one in the neglected arena of comparative archaeology that are as effective at showing us that we not only create the landscapes (and seascapes) that we inhabit but we are also created by them.
John Edward Terrell is an anthropologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.