A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Southeast Asia and Australia give archaeologists
some of the best evidence for ancient sea crossings, not just by Palaeolithic
humans but also by Neolithic peoples and even spice traders contemporary
with the Roman Empire. New discoveries, some controversial, are pushing
back the dates of human colonization of this region and are expanding our
knowledge of early island networks. These finds are also illuminating the
first steps in some of the longest prehistoric open-sea voyages of colonization
on record--from Southeast Asia to Polynesian islands such as Hawaii, Easter
Island, and New Zealand, and perhaps also from Indonesia to Madagascar--during
the first millennium A.D.
To understand the implications
of these discoveries, one must be aware that the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago
contains two very different biogeographical regions. The western islands
on the Sunda Shelf--Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Borneo--were joined to each
other and to the Asian mainland by landbridges during glacial periods of
low sea level. Hence they supported rich Asian placental mammal faunas and
were colonized by Homo erectus, perhaps as early as 1.8 million years
ago. The eastern islands--Sulawesi, Lombok, Flores, Timor, the Moluccas,
and the Philippines--have never been linked by landbridges to either the
Sunda Shelf or Australia, or to each other. They had limited mammal faunas,
chance arrivals from Asia and Australasia.
Migration through the archipelago
has always required that humans cross substantial stretches of open sea.
But when did they first attempt to do this? There is a current controversial
claim by a joint Dutch-Indonesian team that humans were contemporaries of
stegodons, extinct elephant-like animals, at a site called Mata Menge on
the Indonesian island of Flores. Stone flakes and stegodon bones have been
found here in presumed association in deposits located just above a reversal
of the earth's magnetic field dating to 730,000 years ago. Should this claim
receive future support we will have to allow for the possibility that even
Homo erectus was able to cross open sea, in this case the 15-mile-wide
Strait of Lombok between Bali and Lombok.
That the Australian continent
was first settled at least 30,000 years ago, by people who had to cross
consecutive sea lanes in eastern Indonesia, was well known by the late 1960s.
Research by the late Joseph Birdsell and by Geoffrey Irwin of Auckland University
suggests that there were separate northern and southern routes, along which
most islands would have been visible from their closest neighbors on clear
days, leading from the Sunda Shelf islands towards Australia and New Guinea.
If Australia was first reached from Timor, as seems likely, then a final
sea crossing of about 55 miles, involving movement out of sight of land,
would also have been required.
The Australian archaeological
record has now been pushed back to the limits of conventional radiocarbon
dating, with several sites clocking in between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago.
Radiocarbon dates of this age are potentially subject to contamination by
younger carbon at levels undetectable in the laboratory. Such contamination
can produce a date younger than 40,000 years when the real age is much older.
In recent years, optical luminescence dating of sites in northern Australia
has raised the possibility that humans arrived there as long as 60,000 years
ago, and many archaeologists now accept these new dates. More controversial
are current reports, widely publicized in the world media and published
in the journal Antiquity, that Jinmium, a sandstone rock-shelter
in Australia's Northern Territory, has stone artifacts more than 100,000
years old. The site's investigators--Richard Fullagar of the Australian
Museum in Sydney and Lesley Head and David Price of the School of Geosciences
at the University of Wollongong--used thermoluminescence dating to determine
the age of its lower levels. The lowermost stone artifacts are claimed to
be more than 116,000 years old. Because the Jinmium dates are from thermoluminescence
rather than the more accurate single-grain optical luminescence, many archaeologists
question this claim, and verification is essential. Conventional wisdom
has always held that the first humans to reach Australia were modern Homo
sapiens, but if the Jinmium dates are correct it could be that more
archaic forms once lived in Australia, as they did throughout the rest of
the tropical and temperate Old World. Indeed, on Java new dates from the
Ngandong and Sambungmacan sites suggest that Homo erectus may have
survived far longer than previously believed, perhaps to as recently as
25,000 years ago (see "Homo
Elsewhere in the Southeast Asian
island region, new evidence for early voyaging comes from archaeological
projects undertaken in the Moluccas, northern Borneo, and Bali. In the northern
Moluccas, between Sulawesi and New Guinea, humans were visiting the coastal
caves of Golo and Wetef on Gebe Island 33,000 radiocarbon years ago. Caves
and open sites on coastal Sulawesi, northern coastal New Guinea, the Bismarck
Archipelago, and the northern Solomons (southeast of New Guinea) have already
produced similar dates. At this time people seem to have been very mobile,
leaving only sparse traces of occupation (mainly flaked stone tools and
marine shells) and not engaging much in trade of raw materials, such as
stone for making tools. Many of the islands at this time, especially in
the Moluccas and island Melanesia (the Solomons, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia),
may have had such limited land faunas that they were unable to support large
permanent populations. Those who reached New Guinea and Australia, then
joined by a landbridge, might have found a better living hunting now extinct
species of large marsupials and flightless birds. Current research at the
site of Cuddie Springs near Brewarrina in western New South Wales is demonstrating
contemporaneity of humans and megafauna on the Australian continent about
30,000 years ago.
Between 20,000 and 10,000 years
ago the Moluccan and island Melanesian archaeological records indicate greater
contact and innovation. Obsidian from New Britain was carried to New Ireland
(but not apparently as far as the Moluccas) possibly beginning 20,000 to
15,000 years ago. Marsupials were deliberately taken by humans from New
Guinea and perhaps Halmahera to stock small islands, presumably for hunting
purposes. Cuscuses (nocturnal catlike creatures) were taken to New Ireland,
and by 10,000 years ago both cuscuses and wallabies appeared on Gebe. The
people of Gebe also built small circular arrangements of coral blocks, too
small to have functioned as hut foundations, on the floor of Golo Cave ca.
12,000 years ago. They may have served a ritual function. Several sites
in the northern Moluccas, Talaud, and Admiralty Islands have a unique and
rather impressive industry of adzes made from shells of large Tridacna
and Hippopus clams at about the same date. These adzes suggest that
manufacture of dugout canoes was technically possible by 13,000 years ago,
although the earliest colonists of these islands probably paddled small
rafts. Whatever their craft, the extent and repetitiveness of the earliest
colonizations--to as far east as the Solomon Islands via many island-hops
by 30,000 years ago--makes some degree of intentionality undeniable.
Many millennia later the Indo-Malaysian
region again witnessed remarkable transfers of people and material culture.
Three thousand years ago, Neolithic people exchanged New Britain obsidian
across 2,400 miles to the site of Bukit Tengkorak in Sabah, northern Borneo.
The Lapita people moved it for 2,100 miles eastward from New Britain to
as far as Fiji. A new report in the journal Science claims that New
Britain obsidian, excavated by archaeologist Stephen Chia of Universiti
Sains Malaysia and analyzed by anthropologist Robert Tykot of the University
of South Florida, reached Bukit Tengkorak much earlier, by 4000 B.C. No details of
the dating are presented, however, and the claim remains unsubstantiated.
During the original excavation of this site, by myself in 1987, we recovered
a good series of radiocarbon dates and obsidian, identified by Roger Bird
of the Australian Nuclear Sciences and Technology Organisation as coming
from New Britain. At that time we concluded that the Bukit Tengkorak obsidian
dated back no further than 1000 B.C. and was contemporary with the Lapita archaeological culture
of the western Pacific (ca. 1500 to 300 B.C.).
As far as Lapita is concerned,
my own view, and that of many other archaeologists including Patrick Kirch
of the University of California at Berkeley, is that the Lapita culture
represents the Austronesian-speaking Neolithic populations that colonized
Oceania (Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia) beginning ca. 1500 B.C. These people
were ancestral to modern Polynesians and eastern Micronesians, and also
ancestral, to a lesser degree because of the prior existence of human populations
in the western Pacific, to many of the populations of island Melanesia.
In this view, Lapita represents a transmission of people, and Austronesian
languages and cultures, into Oceania from Island Southeast Asia, and ultimately
from southern China and Taiwan. It is significant that the New Britain obsidian
trade, although occurring locally back into the Pleistocene in the Bismarck
Archipelago, reached its long-distance apogee in Lapita times.
Opposition to this view of Lapita
origins comes from John Terrell of the Field Museum of Natural History,
who believes he has found evidence that many cultural features linked with
Lapita may have evolved on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea and not
in Southeast Asia. At sites near the town of Aitape he has found pottery,
so far not precisely dated, which resembles Lapita but lacks its elaborate
impressed designs. According to Terrell it also resembles pottery made in
Indonesia at about the same time as Lapita, and perhaps even slightly before.
Terrell believes that the Polynesian ancestors did not migrate directly
from Southeast Asia but were living in northern New Guinea for a very long
time before some people finally left Melanesia to colonize Polynesia. However,
archaeologists such as myself, who have undertaken research in both Island
Southeast Asia and Polynesia, may find this opinion difficult to accept
and will certainly demand accurate dating of the new materials from Aitape
before giving them serious attention.
We also have dramatic new evidence
of sailing ability in the early historical period in Southeast Asia, in
this case perhaps involving use of the monsoon winds that blow seasonally
across the Bay of Bengal. About 2,000 years ago, pottery characteristic
of the Indo-Roman site of Arikamedu in Tamil Nadu, on the Indian coast,
found its way to the site of Sembiran in Bali (excavated by I.W. Ardika
of Udayana University in Bali), an astounding 2,700 miles as the crow flies,
or much more if the sailors hugged the coast. This Indian trade pottery--the
largest assemblage ever found outside the Indian subcontinent itself--heralded
a millennium of cultural contact that gave rise to the temples and civilizations
of Pagan, Angkor, and Borobudur. Much of this trade probably involved spices--even
Romans occasionally acquired cloves, which came from small islands in the
Future research, if some of the
above claims are to attain the status of fact, must involve more thorough
dating and more careful attention to the stratigraphic pitfalls that one
can fall into, both in caves and open sites. Apparent associations between
artifacts, datable materials, and geomorphological contexts can often be
deceptive. Furthermore, all the coastal sites that might contain direct
traces of Pleistocene colonization were inundated by a rise in the sea level
of 325 feet or more after the last glacial maximum. All we see now is the
inland geographical skeleton of the former landscape. Underwater archaeology
might one day come to the rescue, but so far historical wrecks are proving
more attractive, and lucrative, than sunken Pleistocene sites.
Peter Bellwood is a professor in the department of archaeology and anthropology, Australian National University. His research in the Moluccas was supported by grants from the National Geographic Society and the Australian Research Council. A revised edition of his Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago will be published by the University of Hawai'i Press this year.