Foragers, Cultivators and Mariners: the Complex Emergence of the Neolithic in South-East Asia

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Traditional models that have sought to explain the emergence of the Neolithic in South-East Asia are closely bound up with the effects and affordances of post-glacial inundation of the Sunda Shelf. The dominant Austronesian Hypothesis has placed the maritime movement of people, plants, animals and material culture as central to the shift from foraging to farming across this region 5000–3000 years ago. The alternative, Nusantao Hypothesis, has proposed that increased maritime activity, borne out of a need to adapt to sea-level rise during the first half of the Holocene, resulted in the development of greater cultural and linguistic unity across the region, and that through this came the spread and growth of farming economies. As research has progressed, what we are finding, and what will be discussed briefly in this paper, is potentially a more complex picture. Although the exploitation of resources from coastal and marine environments had long been a feature of tropical foraging, the impact of post glacial sealevel rise on hunter-gatherer communities did not always lead to the immediate adoption of a maritime-oriented way of life. While there is no doubting that a significant shift occurred in the South-East Asian archaeological record post Mid-Holocene, some of the principles and components of the South-East Asian Neolithic appear already to have been in existence for some thousands of years beforehand. The prehistory of species translocation and landscape management was already deeply rooted. In this respect, rather than a ‘revolution’, the Neolithic of South-East Asia increasingly appears to represent an outgrowth of strategies that communities had long-devised to enable them to cope with the structure and diversity of tropical environments and the nature of social systems within those environments.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe origins of food production
Publication statusAccepted - 2016


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