[Paper] What plants might potentially have been used in the forests of prehistoric Southeast Asia?

A new paper by Xhauflair et al. examines plant exploitation in Palawan, Philippins today and its potential for understanding plant exploitation in prehistory.

Pleistocene and Holocene lithic assemblages found in Southeast Asia are characterised by simple production techniques and a paucity of formal stone tools. This situation led some scholars to hypothesise that this situation reflected an adaptation of prehistoric human groups to the rainforest and that these simple stone tools had been mainly used to manufacture more complex implements made of bamboo. Microscopic use traces observed on stone tools could support this hypothesis since many result from plant processing. However, it remains unclear whether these traces were produced by working bamboo or other plants, due to the lack of a suitable use-wear reference collection. To be able to clearly discriminate the use-wear resulting from bamboo processing, such a collection needs to encompass use traces resulting not only from bamboo processing but also from working various other plants, which might potentially have been used by prehistoric groups. We present here the results of a three month field work among Pala’wan communities aiming to know what plants from the forests of Palawan, Philippines are used nowadays, are therefore useful to humans in general and might have been used during the past as well. We recorded the use of 95 different plant species belonging to at least 34 different families. Archaeobotanical studies confirm that some of those plants were available and used by humans in the past while others would have been extant at least in forest refugia, even during glacial periods. Those plants are processed by the Pala’wan at all life stages from seed to dead trees and the parts involved are very diverse. While the most frequent type of use that we witnessed was technological in nature (67 plant species), plants are also used for alimentary, medicinal, ornamental, and sanitary purposes, and even for producing poison. The observations presented here can serve as a basis for use-wear analysts to design experiments in relation to plant exploitation by humans during the past, and to enlarge reference collections.

Source: What plants might potentially have been used in the forests of prehistoric Southeast Asia? An insight from the resources used nowadays by local communities in the forested highlands of Palawan Island

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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