'Neolithic’ societies c. 4000-2000 years ago: Austronesian farmers?



Publication Details

Lloyd-Smith, L., Barker, G., Barton, H., Cameron, J., Cole, F., Daly, P., Doherty, C., Krigbaum, J., Lewis, H., Manser, J., Paz, V., Piper, P. J., Rabett, R. J., Rushworth, G. & Szabo, K. (2013). 'Neolithic’ societies c. 4000-2000 years ago: Austronesian farmers?. In G. Barker (Eds.), Rainforest Foraging and Farming in Island Southeast Asia: the Archaeology of the Niah Caves, Sarawak: Volume 1 (pp. 255-298). United Kingdom: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.


Despite the evidence of the Gan Kira pollen core for sustained human activity in the forest around the Niah Caves from c. 6000 BP (Fig. 6.7), the caves themselves do not appear to have been used at that time. The earliest evidence for the resumption of activity is a radiocarbon date obtained from loose charcoal collected during the excavation of an extended burial (B50) in the West Mouth of the Great Cave, of 3285±168 bp or 3078-3963 cal. BP (AA-27957) (Krigbaum 2001). Targeted radiocarbon dating of charcoal in the Harrisson Excavation Archive from excavated contexts in the West Mouth, interpreted as possible candidates for the beginning, middle and end of the long gap between the Early Holocene occupation and the start of the Neolithic cemetery, failed to produce dates in this period, or even dates between 6000 BP and 4000 BP contemporary with the palynological evidence. After c. 3500 BP there is a consistent number of radiocarbon dates with narrow calibrated date ranges produced on charcoal samples from a number of caves in the Niah complex. The West Mouth again became a focus for human activity, in particular for the burial of the dead. Use of this space for human burial continued over the course of the next 1500 years, resulting in one of the largest prehistoric cemeteries in Island Southeast Asia. At the same time several other caves in the Gunung Subis massif investigated by the Harrissons, caves differing widely in size and character but used predominantly for burial, provide a further rich source of data (Fig. 7.1). The quality of this archaeology offers an opportunity unique in the region to investigate the nature of the funerary rituals practised through this 255 period and, through that lens, to make inferences about the nature and structure of the 'Neolithic' societies who buried their dead in the caves.

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