In Search of the World's Most Ancient Mariners

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19 October 2007 (Science) – Michael Balter reviews the latest scientific opinions about the nature of early human seafaring, covering when the earliest boats were made, migration into Australia, and the time period over which the Sahul and Sunda shelves were colonised.

It seems to be that a major problem with sifting through the evidence is that much of where the evidence would theoretically lie is now underwater. Sea levels in Southeast Asia were very much lower as recently as 6,000 years ago (see Sahul Time for an idea of how much land mass is now underwater), which would make former coastal sites – where we expect to find most of the archaeological material – inaccessible with our current technology. The huge difference of sea levels in the last 50,000 years presents special barriers and repercussions to our understanding of the prehistory of the region – something that I’m beginning to encounter with my own research.

Note: Science is a subscribtion-only magazine.

In Search of the World’s Most Ancient Mariners
by Michael Balter

We humans are terrestrial animals, yet we spend a lot of time gazing wistfully over bodies of water. We flock to the seashore or the lakeside at the slightest sign of mild weather and celebrate the romance of the sea in art and literature. Early seafaring was central to the spread of civilization, and today thousands of vessels ply the world’s oceans, searching for fish and
hauling billions of tons of cargo. Despite the importance of seafaring to culture, however, archaeologists are not sure how, when, and why humans first ventured into the oceans. The earliest known boats, hollowed out logs found in the Netherlands and in France, are at most 10,000 years old.

And the earliest indirect evidence for sea crossings in Europe—human occupation of Cyprus and the Greek island of Milos—dates to only 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. Yet ancient archaeological sites in present-day Australia, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian islands suggest sea crossings at least 45,000 years ago, soon after modern humans first left Africa.


Related Books:
Bioarchaeology of Southeast Asia (Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology) by M. Oxenham
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago by P. Bellwood

Southeast Asia, c. 100,000 B.P.

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03 October 2007 (News in Science) – Monash University unveils an interactive map called Sahul Time, named after the ancient landmass of Australia and Papua New Guinea, that shows you the lay of the land at different points in time over the last 100,000 years. While the main focus is of course on Australia, what’s really nifty is the inclusion of much of island Southeast Asia, which would provide anyone with an interest about the prehistory of the region to see how much larger the land mass must have been – and possibly how many archaeological sites now remain underwater. Links in this post will lead to the News in Science article, while a separate link to Sahul Time will be added to the resources page.

Mouse click reveals ancient coastline
Anna Salleh

The changing shape of Australasia can now be seen in a new interactive digital map that mimics the rise and fall of sea levels over the past 100,000 years.

The map also has pop-up images and text about key archaeological sites and possible routes humans took from Asia to Australia during the last ice age.

Read More

Chickens prove Polynesians crossed Pacific

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05 June 2007 (News in Science, National Geographic) – Why did the Chicken cross the pacific? Because the Polynesians brought them there, it seems. A 600-year-old chicken bone from Chile is found to be carrying a rare mutation that can be traced to the Polynesian islands, thus strengthening the idea that the Polynesian islanders were able to traverse the pacific, and overturning the assumption that chickens were imported into the New World by Columbus.

Chickens originated from Southeast Asia, and could have been brought to the Polynesian islands from the Austronesian expansion and migration from between 5,000 and 2,500 BC. Originating from Taiwan, the expansion travelled down to Philippines, Borneo and the Moluccas; some went westwards towards Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula while others headed eastward towards Polynesia by 500 AD.

The tracing of chickens to a Polynesian origin also refutes one of the assertions in Gavin Menzies’ 1421 thesis, who argued that the existence of chickens in South America before Columbus was due to the fact that the Chinese Ming fleets were there first!

Polynesians made first takeaway chicken

A chicken bone found in Chile provides solid evidence to settle a debate over whether Polynesians travelling on rafts visited South America thousands of years ago, or vice versa, researchers say.

The DNA in the bone carries a rare mutation that links it to chickens in Tonga and Samoa.

And radiocarbon dating shows the bone is around 600 years old, meaning it predates the arrival of the Spanish in South America.

Polynesians – And Their Chickens – Arrived in Americas Before Columbus

The greatest testament we have today to the sailing abilities of the ancient Polynesians may be found in a few ancient chicken bones, a new study reveals.

The bones, which scientists recently dug up from a site on the central coast of Chile, offer a startling conclusion: Polynesians beat Columbus to the Americas by probably a century or more, arriving at the latest in the early 1400s.

This means Polynesians not only colonized nearly every island in the South Pacific—making journeys over thousands of miles—but they also made the long hop all the way to the Americas.

The study may put an end to a raging debate about how chickens were introduced to the New World, the authors suggest.

The paper will be published very soon in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but in the meantime, you can read more about the implications of the chicken bone find in News in Science and the National Geographic.

Books about the Austronesian migration from Southeast Asia:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
Bioarchaeology of Southeast Asia (Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology) by M. Oxenham
Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago by P. Bellwood
Indo-Pacific Prehistory 1990. Proceedings of the 14th Congress Held at Yogyakarta. Vol 1 & 2. by P. Bellwood (Ed)
Man’s conquest of the Pacific: The prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania by P. Bellwood
The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia by N. Tarling (Ed.)

Spotlight on Sabah's stone age culture

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22 April 2007 (New Straits Times) – Today’s NST features a special spotlight on the stone age culture – past and ethnographic present. The first story is about the prehistory ceramics industrial site at Bukit Tengkorak (Tengkorak Hill).

New Straits Times, 22 Apr 2007

SpotLight: Stone Age Potters

Tampi villagers today don’t think twice about using clay from the foot of Bukit Tengkorak and nearby areas in southeastern Sabah for their pottery, digging wells for fresh water, burning wood for fuel and eating a wide range of fish, shellfish and molluscs.

But most of them are unaware that from about 3,000 until 2,000 years ago, people at the summit of the 600-foot hill did the same–when the Semporna peninsula was a late Stone Age population hub and craft centre.

Experts from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), the Sabah Museum Department and the Department of Natural Heritage have found millions of sherds which show that the site about five kilometres from Semporna town was one of the largest, if not the largest, pottery making sites in Island Southeast Asia (SEA) and the Pacific during the Neolithic era (the last part of the Stone Age, beginning 8,000 BC).

Their findings have overturned some theories about how prehistoric people lived and traded in the region.

Until the excavations here, archaeologists believed that long-distance sea trade and migration of people in insular SEA and the Pacific moved east from Melanesia (near Papua New Guinea) to Polynesia, leaving behind what is known as the “Lapita culture” of pottery, stone tools and ornaments.

“Our research at Bukit Tengkorak shows that 3,000 years ago, people were not only moving east towards New Britain in Melanesia but also westwards towards Sabah,” explains Dr Stephen Chia of USM’s Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia, who based his PhD thesis on the site.

“This is one of the longest trading routes in the world during the Neolithic period,” says the archeochemist who found obsidian (a volcanic glass used to make tools) at the site and traced it chemically to Talasea in New Britain, 3500 kilometres away. His fieldwork in Southeast Asia also found stone tools and pottery similar to Bukit Tengkorak in the Zamboanga Peninsula, the Sulu Archipelago and Sulawesi.

The second story covers the Bajau people who live in the vicinity of Bukit Tengkorak on the Semporna peninsula of Sabah – the clay stoves produced by the Bajau are remarkably similar to the 3,000-year-old stoves unearthed nearby, implying an unbroken ceramics manufacturing tradition.

New Straits Times, 22 Apr 2007

Bajaus carrying on a long tradition

The finished handiwork of this Bajau woman in Sabah’s southeastern Semporna peninsula looks exactly like the 3,000-year-old stove unearthed at nearby Bukit Tengkorak.

“Pottery has been made like this for hundreds of years,” says Rogayah. “Each house has a stove to grill fish or satay and cook rice.”

“The way of life of the Bajaus today and the food they eat are similar to what we found on site,” says Dr Stephen Chia of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia.

“We think that the nomadic Bajau Laut may have landed here to trade, mend their nets, dry fish and bury their dead, but it was the settled coastal Bajaus who made the pottery.”
However, he cautions: “The people of Bukit Tengkorak could also be a totally different group of maritime people who shifted here and then moved on.”


Related Books:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
Man’s conquest of the Pacific: The prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania by P. Bellwood

Ministry To Fund Archeological Research In Bukit Tengkorak

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21 April 2007 (Bernama) – Archaeological research in Bukit Tengkorak, Sabah, on a prehistoric ceramics manufacturing site is set to continue, to unravel more answers on the migration and dispersal routes from island Southeast Asia to the pacific islands.

Ministry To Fund Archeological Research In Bukit Tengkorak

The Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry will allocate sufficient funds to enable the archeological research in Bukit Tengkorak to continue.

The National Heritage Department, meanwhile, will fully finance the repair of public facilities in the area for visitors’ comfort.

Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim told reporters this when visiting Bukit Tengkorak, about 10km from Semporna town, today.

The archeological research in Bukit Tengkorak, located about 500ft above sea level, and its surrounding areas began in 1994 by a team from the Malaysian Archeological Research Centre of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in cooperation with the Sabah Museum Department.

The research shows that Bukit Tengkorak was probably the biggest porcelain manufacturing site in Southeast Asia, especially during the Neolithic age.

Over five million pieces of ceramic wares with various patterns, aged about 3,000 years, have been found there.


Related Books:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
Man’s conquest of the Pacific: The prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania by P. Bellwood

Pig study forces rethink of Pacific colonisation

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13 March 2007 (EurekaAlerts) – Analysis of pig DNA in Southeast Asia and the pacific islands suggests nuances in the human migration within Southeast Asia.

Pig study forces rethink of Pacific colonisation

A survey of wild and domestic pigs has caused archaeologists to reconsider both the origins of the first Pacific colonists and the migration routes humans travelled to reach the remote Pacific.

Scientists from Durham University and the University of Oxford, studying DNA and tooth shape in modern and ancient pigs, have revealed that, in direct contradiction to longstanding ideas, ancient human colonists may have originated in Vietnam and travelled between numerous islands before first reaching New Guinea, and later landing on Hawaii and French Polynesia.

Using mitochondrial DNA obtained from modern and ancient pigs across East Asia and the Pacific, the researchers demonstrated that a single genetic heritage is shared by modern Vietnamese wild boar, modern feral pigs on the islands of Sumatra, Java, and New Guinea, ancient Lapita pigs in Near Oceania, and modern and ancient domestic pigs on several Pacific Islands.

The study results, published today in the prestigious academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, contradict established models of human migration which assert that the ancestors of Pacific islanders originated in Taiwan or Island Southeast Asia, and travelled along routes that pass through the Philippines as they dispersed into the remote Pacific.

The study results, published today in the prestigious academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, contradict established models of human migration which assert that the ancestors of Pacific islanders originated in Taiwan or Island Southeast Asia, and travelled along routes that pass through the Philippines as they dispersed into the remote Pacific.

The research was funded by funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Fyssen Foundation.

Research project director, Dr Keith Dobney, a Wellcome Trust senior research fellow with the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, said: “Many archaeologists have assumed that the combined package of domestic animals and cultural artefacts associated with the first Pacific colonizers originated in the same place and was then transported with people as a single unit.

“Our study shows that this assumption may be too simplistic, and that different elements of the package, including pigs, probably took different routes through Island South East Asia, before being transported into the Pacific.’


Related Books:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
Bioarchaeology of Southeast Asia (Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology) by M. Oxenham
Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago by P. Bellwood

Timor cave may reveal how humans reached Australia

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22 December 2006 (The Age, Sydney Morning Herald) – It’s rare to hear about archaeological information from East Timor (Timor Leste). This one reports of the Jerimalai site, which was inhabited as far back as 42,000 years ago.

Timor cave may reveal how humans reached Australia

AN AUSTRALIAN archaeologist has discovered the oldest evidence of occupation by modern humans on the islands that were the stepping stones from South-East Asia to Australia.

A cave site in East Timor where people lived more than 42,000 years ago, eating turtles, tuna and giant rats, was unearthed by Sue O’Connor, head of archaeology and natural history at the Australian National University.

Dr O’Connor also found ancient stone tools and shells used for decoration in the limestone shelter, known as Jerimalai, on the eastern tip of the island.

She said her discovery could help solve the mystery of the route ancient seafarers took to get here from South-East Asia.

It strengthens the view that they made a southern passage, via Timor, rather than travelling northwards via Borneo and Sulawesi, then down through Papua New Guinea. “The antiquity of the Jerimalai shelter makes this site significant at a world level,” said Dr O’Connor, who presented the findings at the annual conference of the Australian Archaeological Association this month.

Bones tell story of Thai origin

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05 November 2006 (Bangkok Post) – DNA evidence for Thai migration to the region from China pushes timeline back another 700 years.

Bones tell story of Thai origin

The method constructed the so-called ”Phylogenetic tree” or ”genetic evolution tree” that indicates links between ancient skeletons and people in China and Southeast Asian countries, said Prof Samoerchai Poolsuwan, anthropologist from Thammasat University’s sociology faculty and also a member of the research team.

”The DNA test confirmed that the genes of the people and the skeletons are close,” he said.

”In lay terms, you may say that Thai ancestors may have shared the same ancestors from people in China and Southeast Asia.

”You may say that people in this region may share the same origins, and Thais may go back more than 700 years,” he said.

He said the findings are just a small part of the whole picture and more DNA tests were needed, adding the Fine Arts Department had agreed to use DNA tests at other archaeological sites.


Related Books:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
The Excavation of Ban Lum Khao (The Origins of Civilization of Angkor, Vol. 1) by C. Higham

Searching for the First Malayo-Polynesians: Research on the Taiwan and Philippine Neolithic

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12 October 2006 (Australian National University) – Public lecture at the ANU on Wednesday, 18 October by Dr. Peter Bellwood.

Searching for the First Malayo-Polynesians: Research on the Taiwan and Philippine Neolithic

Linguistic, archaeological and genetic evidence indicate that Taiwan was a major origin region for the Austronesian-speaking peoples. Their major branch, that of the speakers of Malayo-Polynesian languages, has spread more than half way around the world, and today has over 350 million members. The archaeological roots of this dispersal can be traced in Neolithic cultures in Taiwan and the northern Philippines (Batanes Islands and northern Luzon) dating between 5000 and 3000 years ago.

Archaeological excavations in Taiwan and the Batanes Islands by ANU archaeologists (inter alia) will be discussed, as well as new sourcing research by Taiwan geochemists on Taiwan nephrite, a mineral that travelled about 2,000 years ago over huge areas of SE Asia (to Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia).

Who are indigenous Indonesians?

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11 Aug 2006 (Jakarta Post) – While this forum letter probably has a political undertone to it, it provides a concise overview about the diffusion of homo sapiens throughout southeast asia.

Who are indigenous Indonesians?

Homo sapiens first reached Indonesia about 50,000 years ago, when sea levels were lower than now and western Indonesia was still part of the Southeast Asia mainland. After several millennia, early Indonesians invented what were probably the world’s first sea-going vessels and went on to settle eastern Indonesia, Australia, including Tasmania, and the Solomon Islands.

Their descendants still inhabit Papua today. However, they were eliminated from western Indonesia by relatively recent migrants. The spark for this was the emergence of crop cultivation in the Yangtze River valley in about 7,000 BC. Agriculture spread across what is now China and farming communities began to migrate into Southeast Asia.


Related Books:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
Bioarchaeology of Southeast Asia (Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology) by M. Oxenham
Man’s conquest of the Pacific: The prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania by P. Bellwood
Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago by P. Bellwood
The Archaeology of Mainland Southeast Asia: From 10,000 B.C. to the Fall of Angkor by C. Higham