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The ‘human revolution’ in lowland tropical Southeast Asia: the antiquity and behaviour of anatomically modern humans at Niah Cave (Sarawak, Borneo)

The ‘human revolution’ in lowland tropical Southeast Asia: the antiquity and behaviour of anatomically modern humans at Niah Cave (Sarawak, Borneo)
The ‘human revolution’ in lowland tropical Southeast Asia: the antiquity and behaviour of anatomically modern humans at Niah Cave (Sarawak, Borneo)
Recent research in Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia suggests that we can no longer assume a direct and exclusive link between anatomically modern humans and behavioral modernity (the ‘human revolution’), and assume that the presence of either one implies the presence of the other: discussions of the emergence of cultural complexity have to proceed with greater scrutiny of the evidence on a site-by-site basis to establish secure associations between the archaeology present there and the hominins who created it. This paper presents one such case study: Niah Cave in Sarawak on the island of Borneo, famous for the discovery in 1958 in the West Mouth of the Great Cave of a modern human skull, the ‘Deep Skull,’ controversially associated with radiocarbon dates of ca. 40,000 years before the present. A new chronostratigraphy has been developed through a re-investigation of the lithostratigraphy left by the earlier excavations, AMS-dating using three different comparative pre-treatments including ABOX of charcoal, and U-series using the Diffusion-Absorption model applied to fragments of bones from the Deep Skull itself. Stratigraphic reasons for earlier uncertainties about the antiquity of the skull are examined, and it is shown not to be an ‘intrusive’ artifact. It was probably excavated from fluvial-pond-desiccation deposits that accumulated episodically in a shallow basin immediately behind the cave entrance lip, in a climate that ranged from times of comparative aridity with complete desiccation, to episodes of greater surface wetness, changes attributed to regional climatic fluctuations. Vegetation outside the cave varied significantly over time, including wet lowland forest, montane forest, savannah, and grassland. The new dates and the lithostratigraphy relate the Deep Skull to evidence of episodes of human activity that range in date from ca. 46,000 to ca. 34,000 years ago. Initial investigations of sediment scorching, pollen, palynomorphs, phytoliths, plant macrofossils, and starch grains recovered from existing exposures, and of vertebrates from the current and the earlier excavations, suggest that human foraging during these times was marked by habitat-tailored hunting technologies, the collection and processing of toxic plants for consumption, and, perhaps, the use of fire at some forest-edges. The Niah evidence demonstrates the sophisticated nature of the subsistence behavior developed by modern humans to exploit the tropical environments that they encountered in Southeast Asia, including rainforest.
0047-2484
243-261
Barker, G.
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Barton, H.
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Bird, M.
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Daly, P.
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Datan, I.
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Dykes, A.
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Farr, L.
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Gilbertson, D.
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Harrisson, B.
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Hunt, C.
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Lewis, H.
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Barker, G.
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Barton, H.
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Bird, M.
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Daly, P.
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Datan, I.
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Dykes, A.
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Farr, L.
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Gilbertson, D.
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Harrisson, B.
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Hunt, C.
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Higham, T.
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Kealhofer, L.
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Krigbaum, J.
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Lewis, H.
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Paz, V.
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Rushworth, G.
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Stephens, M.
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Thompson, J.
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Turney, C.
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Barker, G., Barton, H. and Bird, M. et al. (2007) The ‘human revolution’ in lowland tropical Southeast Asia: the antiquity and behaviour of anatomically modern humans at Niah Cave (Sarawak, Borneo). Journal of Human Evolution, 52 (3), 243-261. (doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2006.08.011).

Record type: Article

Abstract

Recent research in Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia suggests that we can no longer assume a direct and exclusive link between anatomically modern humans and behavioral modernity (the ‘human revolution’), and assume that the presence of either one implies the presence of the other: discussions of the emergence of cultural complexity have to proceed with greater scrutiny of the evidence on a site-by-site basis to establish secure associations between the archaeology present there and the hominins who created it. This paper presents one such case study: Niah Cave in Sarawak on the island of Borneo, famous for the discovery in 1958 in the West Mouth of the Great Cave of a modern human skull, the ‘Deep Skull,’ controversially associated with radiocarbon dates of ca. 40,000 years before the present. A new chronostratigraphy has been developed through a re-investigation of the lithostratigraphy left by the earlier excavations, AMS-dating using three different comparative pre-treatments including ABOX of charcoal, and U-series using the Diffusion-Absorption model applied to fragments of bones from the Deep Skull itself. Stratigraphic reasons for earlier uncertainties about the antiquity of the skull are examined, and it is shown not to be an ‘intrusive’ artifact. It was probably excavated from fluvial-pond-desiccation deposits that accumulated episodically in a shallow basin immediately behind the cave entrance lip, in a climate that ranged from times of comparative aridity with complete desiccation, to episodes of greater surface wetness, changes attributed to regional climatic fluctuations. Vegetation outside the cave varied significantly over time, including wet lowland forest, montane forest, savannah, and grassland. The new dates and the lithostratigraphy relate the Deep Skull to evidence of episodes of human activity that range in date from ca. 46,000 to ca. 34,000 years ago. Initial investigations of sediment scorching, pollen, palynomorphs, phytoliths, plant macrofossils, and starch grains recovered from existing exposures, and of vertebrates from the current and the earlier excavations, suggest that human foraging during these times was marked by habitat-tailored hunting technologies, the collection and processing of toxic plants for consumption, and, perhaps, the use of fire at some forest-edges. The Niah evidence demonstrates the sophisticated nature of the subsistence behavior developed by modern humans to exploit the tropical environments that they encountered in Southeast Asia, including rainforest.

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Accepted/In Press date: 31 August 2006
e-pub ahead of print date: 1 October 2006
Published date: March 2007
Organisations: Archaeology

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Local EPrints ID: 394413
URI: https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/394413
ISSN: 0047-2484
PURE UUID: e19087b5-1e3f-464b-afc2-c80be82c5c49
ORCID for A. Pike: ORCID iD orcid.org/0000-0002-5610-8948

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Date deposited: 27 Jun 2016 15:58
Last modified: 07 Aug 2019 00:34

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Contributors

Author: G. Barker
Author: H. Barton
Author: M. Bird
Author: P. Daly
Author: I. Datan
Author: A. Dykes
Author: L. Farr
Author: D. Gilbertson
Author: B. Harrisson
Author: C. Hunt
Author: T. Higham
Author: L. Kealhofer
Author: J. Krigbaum
Author: H. Lewis
Author: S. McLaren
Author: V. Paz
Author: A. Pike ORCID iD
Author: P. Piper
Author: B. Pyatt
Author: T. Reynolds
Author: R. Rabett
Author: J. Rose
Author: G. Rushworth
Author: M. Stephens
Author: C. Stringer
Author: J. Thompson
Author: C. Turney

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